Introducing the Ultrabook Contenders

When Intel initially put out the idea of the ultrabook as a new type of laptop, I admit harboring plenty of skepticism—isn’t the ultrabook just a gussied up rebranding of an ultraportable? Unfortunately, being a skeptic/cynic  has served me well over the years, and so now here I sit in front of two ultrabooks trying to determine a couple of things: which ultrabook is the “best” right now, and are any of them actually worth buying. The first question may be a bit easier to answer, but the second….

I hinted at this in our Holiday 2011 Mobile Buyer’s Guide, but if you’re in the market for a good ultrabook, you could do a lot worse than to go out and grab a MacBook Air and call it a day. If you don’t like OS X and are happier running Windows 7, the MBA can of course run Windows as well, and it still probably rates higher than several of the ultrabooks floating around right now. Yes, the MBA will cost more for similar specs, but what the specs often don’t tell you is how laptops compare in the more subjective areas like build quality, keyboard quality, and display quality. That said, we still have these two ultrabooks to review, so let’s where they compete and where they fall short.

In the one corner we have Acer’s Aspire S3, with a 256GB SSD and an i7-2637M processor (1.7GHz base with Turbo up to 2.8GHz). Pricing on the S3-951-6432 we have in hand starts at $1230 online (down from the $1300 MSRP—and we’ve seen it as low as $1200 during the past few weeks). The base model S3-951-6646 on the other hand can be had for just $875 online (down from the $900 MSRP; we’ve seen t as low as $850). The entry-level model is different in a couple key areas from what I’m reviewing; first, it has a lower spec i5-2467M processor (1.6GHz base with Turbo up to 2.3GHz), and second it uses a hybrid HDD + SSD arrangement for storage. It’s that second item that worries me more, as the main HDD is a 5400RPM 320GB model and the SSD is a small 20GB unit. What’s more, the SSD isn’t used for any form of caching as far as I can determine (Intel’s Smart Response Technology requires the Z68 chipset), so it’s really just there to act as a swap file and a hibernation file repository. We’ll get to the full specs in a moment, but let’s introduce the other contender first.

In the other corner we have the ASUS UX31E, the big brother to the UX21E that we reviewed as our first ultrabook encounter. ASUS also sent us their higher end UX31E-DH72 model, sporting a 256GB SSD and an i7-2677M processor (a 100MHz clock speed increase over the previous model i7-2637M). The base model UX31E-DH52 has a 128GB SSD and an i5-2557M CPU for around $1100, sometimes less. Intel originally set a target price of $1000 or less for the base model of any ultrabook, but this seems to be a pretty loose definition as we can’t find a $1000 UX31E right now. The UX31E-DH72 we’re reviewing tips the scales at a rather hefty $1399 (MSRP and online price).

The market for ultrabooks has also expanded to include a few other laptops, like the Samsung Series 9. We’ve seen that in person, and the one area where it’s clearly better is contrast ratio on the LCD—and a matte LCD as well. We haven’t been able to test it yet, but we should have that one soon enough. Performance of the base model with an i3 ULV processor will certainly be lower than what we’re testing with the Acer S3 and ASUS UX31E, but we saw the upgraded NP900X3A-A02US model with i5-2537M and a 128GB SSD going for as little as $999 last week; sadly, the price is now back up to $1430, which isn’t nearly so interesting. It’s one to keep an eye out for, though, as $999 is a massive discount compared to where the Series 9 launched and that particular model has pretty good specs.

Both the Acer and ASUS offerings are 13.3” ultrabooks, which puts them in the same family as the Toshiba Portege Z835 and the MacBook Air 13, so that gives us five potential ultrabook-like devices to discuss (seven if we include the UX21E and MBA 11). How do all these ultrabooks compare to each other, and can one of them rise to the top? Not surprisingly, the answer to that question is rather complex and will ultimately distill down to what you value most in a laptop. We have examples of longer battery life, better displays, higher resolutions, larger and/or faster SSDs, and faster CPUs. There’s also the keyboard, build quality, and overall design to consider. Let’s give the rundown of the Acer and ASUS ultrabooks before we hit the benchmarks, and then we’ll wrap up with some thoughts on the ultrabook market as a whole.

Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook
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  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    At 100 nits the UX31E has a white point of 93.39 and a black point of 0.44, giving a contrast of 212:1 -- basically it doesn't change. Reply
  • cobalt42 - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the review.

    I just wanted to say I appreciate that you show a nice, direct picture of the keyboard layout and include some discussion of dedicated home/end/pageup/pagedown/insert/delete keys. That's the main thing keeping me away from MBAs, and these two don't get it quite right either. (Yes, I use those keys constantly. Chording is not acceptable when there's plenty of space on the keyboard for dedicated keys. And is that a power button KEY on the Asus? How often do you need to hit the power button that you need to waste an entire key for it? Insane.) The Toshiba Z830 has a good key layout, but too many other things wrong with it like the ridiculously low resolution.
    Reply
  • tim851 - Friday, December 30, 2011 - link

    I HATE it, when they place a dedicated row of Home/End/... buttons next to the keyboard. I tend to hit the Delete and Enter keys on the right edge and if that row is present, I will oftentimes hit one of its keys alongside the one I mesnt to press.

    That's why I find I have little choice when it comes to 13" laptops, because most of them have that dreaded row of keys.

    Please, leave the few that don't, alone!
    Reply
  • ccd1 - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Santa brought me an early Christmas gift of the Dell 15z. Santa had read the review here and ordered the 15z with only two upgrades, the 1080 display and a 256k SSD. Based on my brief use of this PC, I have these thoughts.

    Ultrabooks have the potential to expand portability to include larger machines. True portability stops at 14" right now, IMHO. It would be really nice to see a 15" ultrabook. The 15z kind of gets there, but not quite. A thinner, lighter 15z would definitely be more portable.

    All of these machines need a really good docking station, ideally a combo laptop cooler and docking station. To have these machines double as desktops, would want one plug for the peripherals and be done with it. Right now I have my machine connected to a big display, keyboard, mouse, laptop cooler, mic, and HDD backup. The idea of plugging and unplugging all these peripherals to move the machine around is a real damper on portability. Love to have a docking station that plugs into the USB 3.0 port and be done with it.
    Reply
  • r3loaded - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    It's funny to note that the Asus Transformer Prime (practically the stylistic tablet equivalent of the Zenbook) has a far superior display compared to these ultrabooks that cost more than double. I hope Apple can push the industry forward instead of letting them race to the bottom on displays. Reply
  • ibtar - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Pretty sure we've already hit rock bottom as far as LCD quality goes, at least in laptops. Only place to go from here is up, but who knows when that'll happen. Reply
  • Death666Angel - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Coming from a Travelmate 8172, my next notebook needs to look similar to:
    - 2 core CPU between 1.5 and 2.5GHz (4 threads optional)
    - integrated GPU to play HL2-ish titles at native resolution and medium settings
    - 128GB SSD (performance on par with first SF-Generation or better) (mSATA SSD + 2.5" HDD optimum)
    - 4 GB RAM (8 GB optional)
    - matte 12.1" to 13.3" LCD with 1600x900 (good brightness appreciated, contrast and color replication secondary)
    - weight below 1.5kg
    - thickness anything under 3cm, length and width as the display allows plus medium bezel
    - no ODD
    - trackpad area separated from rest of the chassis, keyboard keys as big as possible for the chassis
    - 60Wh battery fully replaceable by the end user
    - Intel WLAN adapter with 300+Mb/s, 2.4GHz/5GHz dualband (3G not needed)
    - 2xUSB 3.0, 2xUSB 2.0, 1 Gb Ethernet and/or Thunderbolt

    Price can be between 800€-1200€, depending on actual components.

    What I will not buy anymore: 1366x768 in anything above 11.6", glossy LCD, anything without either USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt.
    Reply
  • Snotling - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    not ever again (unless its a smart phnoe) Reply
  • retrospooty - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    "NOT going under 900p"

    Ditto.

    Any product at all when I see 1368x768 I immediately tune out. So tired of that low res as a standard.

    One good thing you gotta give Apple, is the retina display. To me its overkill for a phone, but if it can help to usher in the end of 1368x768 laptops then I applaud them. Thank you Apple!
    Reply
  • nphewitt - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Apple uses MagSafe connectors, not MagLock. Kleenex vs Tissue, whatever. Just putting it out there. Reply

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