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My focus on laptop recommendations today is on the rather nebulous “thin and light” category. That can mean different things to different people, but with Ultrabooks encroaching on this market I’m going to keep it simple and automatically disqualify any and all Ultrabooks from consideration for this category—they have their own recommendations already, so I see no need to overlap coverage if I can avoid it. Since I started with Ultrabooks, however, and I only picked one laptop, that means you’ll have to wait a bit longer before I return to that category and look as some other similar options. In the meantime, feel free to debate the “best” choices for the thin and light category in the comments, and if I need to revise what goes where I’ll do so.

Personally, I’m going to define thin and light rather simply: no more than five pounds on 15.6” laptops, 4 pounds or less on 14” and smaller laptops, and as noted above: not an Ultrabook (but Sleekbooks and other similar options are okay). If you think 5 pounds is too much (and I’m sure some of you do), simply skip those choices and look at the others. I’m also going to cover a range of pricing and features, and again I want to note in advance that AMD’s Richland and Intel’s Haswell chips are coming so I’m not super keen on suggesting you go out and spend a lot of money on a high-end laptop that will soon be outdated. Nevertheless, I will have a couple more expensive options.

As far as other features are concerned, I’m not making any real limitations other than that the current recommendations use AMD Trinity or Intel Ivy Bridge processors—if you want a deal on a Llano, Brazos, or Sandy Bridge laptop, you’ll have to shop around, as inventory tends to be limited on such options these days. I also want to make it clear that we have not done full reviews of most of the laptops we’re recommending; we simply lack the manpower to review every laptop that comes out, and in many cases the reviews would be largely redundant anyway. Performance is rarely the primary consideration in terms of laptop reviews, as we know what to expect from most hardware (i.e. an i5-3210M with an HDD will perform essentially the same whether it’s in a Dell, HP, Lenovo, or some other brand laptop), so a lot of it comes down to finding the right features and design at the right price.

 

Budget Thin and Light Recommendations:
Dell Inspiron 15 ($430)
Acer V5-171-6471 ($530)

Let me get this out of the way first: finding a good “budget” thin and light that doesn’t involve compromise is quite difficult. I ended up choosing two offerings, one a larger, less expensive laptop that barely manages to meet my “thin and light” criteria, and the second a much smaller 11.6” offering that costs a bit more but will travel nicely. We’ll start with the less expensive of the two, the Dell Inspiron 15.

A couple things set the Dell Inspiron 15 apart from other similar offerings, the biggest factor being that I didn’t see a lot of complaining about it online. $430 is a great price for the component selection, and for those that like a bit larger display (not everyone is a 20-something with good eyesight!) it should have just what you need. This is also about as large as you can go while still remaining within the guidelines I set for this category, as the Inspiron 15 tips the scales at just under five pounds and comes with a 15.6” display (and if you go with the 6-cell battery and touchscreen for $550 from Dell, it’s actually 5.2 pounds). Other than that and a few people complaining about the touchpad, this is a decent offering. You can actually pick up a lower spec unit for $350 if you’re willing to go with a Celeron 1007U CPU, but I prefer spending a bit more for a full Core i3 processor with the fully enabled HD 4000 graphics.

On the other end of the thin and light spectrum is the Acer V5-171, sporting an 11.6” display with an i5-3337U processor, 6GB RAM, 500GB HDD, and weighing just 3.04 lbs. laptop. I know from personal experience that at least the larger V5 series Acer options are good values with few major gripes outside of aesthetics, and the V5-171 looks to be in a similar situation. As with any laptop coming from a major OEM and still equipped with a hard drive, I highly recommend spending an hour or two initially removing bloatware and other utilities that slow the system down. Once that’s done, you should have a good ultraportable that can last through four or five hours of light use.

Again, at these prices, it’s basically compromise everywhere you look, so let me toss out a few other alternatives and I’ll note the potential issues people have reported. The Lenovo IdeaPad S405 at $400 is a 14” offering that’s a bit cheaper than the above Dell, and it comes with an AMD A6-4455M APU (the slowest Trinity APU on the block), 4GB RAM and a 500GB hard drive. Battery capacity (and thus battery life) is quite low (three hours of light use seems typical, though you might eke out four or five if you turn the brightness all the way down and disable WiFi), build quality isn’t the greatest, and quite a few people dislike the touchpad. What you get is a Windows 8 laptop that weighs just under four pounds; if you want the Intel IdeaPad S400 alternative (faster CPU, potentially slower iGPU) it costs $470 with an i3-3227U.

A few other alternatives I considered are the Dell Inspiron 13z ($450) and the ASUS VivoBook X202E-DH31T ($500), but quite a few people seem to have issues with the wireless networking in the 13z while the ASUS got complaints about thermal throttling. On the other hand, the ASUS is one of the least (if not the least) expensive touchscreen laptops you’ll find and it weighs under three pounds. For the right type of user, either laptop might work well, but unless you really want the touchscreen I’d be more inclined to look at Acer’s V5-171-6471 mentioned above.

 

Midrange Thin and Light Recommendation:
Sony VAIO S SVS15123CXB ($850)

If the budget sector had a lot of similar offerings, the midrange thin and light category is decidedly underrepresented, at least at Newegg. There are tons of Ultrabooks in the $750 to $1000 range that I’m skipping for this guide, which leaves a lot of upgraded versions of the budget options and not much else. However, there’s one laptop that’s basically the updated version of something I reviewed last year, and it has a lot going for it if you’re not looking for a laptop with a discrete GPU: the Sony VAIO S SVS15123CXB ($850).

That price will get you a rather sleek looking laptop that weighs under 4.5 pounds, making it a half pound lighter than the similarly sized Dell listed above. Far more important to me however is the inclusion of a beautiful 15.5” 1080p IPS display, and while it may not match the quality of a quality desktop LCD it’s so much better than the vast majority of laptops that it’s an easy recommendation. Other features include a standard voltage i5-3210M processor, 6GB RAM (4GB onboard, 2GB via a user upgradable SO-DIMM), 500GB HDD, and a slot loading DVDRW. Really, though, it’s all about the display.

If you want a faster version with discrete graphics, the VAIO S SVS15127PXB ($1150) comes with an i7-3632QM CPU, GeForce GT 640M LE GPU (switchable via Optimus), 8GB RAM, and a 750GB HDD. The 640M LE isn’t going to handle 1080p gaming in most titles, but it can do 1366x768 fairly well at moderate detail settings. While I'll have a couple other high-end options below, out of all the current thin and light laptops, this is the one I like most as it delivers a good design and some great features, all at a reasonable price.

 

High-End Thin and Light Recommendations:
ASUS Zenbook UX51VZ-XH71 ($2300)
Apple MacBook Pro Retina 15 ($2600)

This is basically a question of how much money you have to spend, and whether you want to do so just before a major chip refresh. I wouldn’t, but if you can’t wait these are currently my two top picks, and they’re very well equipped (though still overpriced in my opinion). First, for the Windows users that really don’t want to deal with OS X, Boot Camp, and a screen resolution that Windows is ill equipped to handle properly, there’s the ASUS UX51VZ.

I took one of these to CES this year, and I really like so much of what ASUS has to offer. The 1080p IPS display is great (though I suspect it might be the same as the Sony VAIO S panel, so it’s definitely not perfect), the design is attractive, performance is good, and you get reasonable battery life. Technically it’s actually an Ultrabook, but who are we kidding: no one really thinks of a 15.6” laptop as an Ultrabook, no matter how thin it is (do they?). The $2300 model comes with two 256GB SSDs in RAID 0 (not really user replaceable either), a Core i6-3612QM quad-core CPU, 8GB DDR3-1600 (again, not user replaceable), and a GeForce GT 650M 1.5GB dGPU with NVIDIA Optimus support. It basically has everything you could want, at a price you may not be willing to afford, but if you’re looking for one of the best thin and light high-end offerings, until Haswell arrives this is it.

On the other end of the spectrum we have the MacBook Pro Retina 15, a laptop that basically redefined what we can expect when we ask for quality. With a 2880x1800 native LCD resolution, no one else can currently match Apple. What’s more, OS X has been built to work with the Retina display, and most major apps are now Retina aware. If you’re going to go for this sort of hardware, you might as well go all-in and get the 512GB SSD model with the upgraded CPU and 16GB RAM. Yes, there are several other variants of the Retina 15 out there, but I couldn’t justify adding $350 for an extra 256GB of SSD capacity so I feel like this is the one to get.

What always amazes me (as a Windows user) is how well Apple MacBooks hold their resale value, even years after purchase. You could probably buy one of these now, use it until the inevitable Haswell update is released, and still sell it for over $2000. In six months, you’ll be lucky to get half of what you paid for most used Windows laptops. I generally find the build quality of Apple’s laptops to be excellent, but I’m still far more comfortable in Windows and it’s easier on my wallet. YMMV.

As an interesting side note, this is the first time I’ve ever explicitly recommended an Apple product. I have complained about the sorry state of affairs with laptop LCDs for six years now; leave it to Apple to not only improve the quality, but to basically leave everyone eating their dust. Kudos, Apple. Now hopefully we can get some reasonably priced PC alternatives in the next cycle.

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  • MrSpadge - Saturday, April 20, 2013 - link

    I agree with you, Jarred.

    - had you incldued the Air, you would have to considered Ultabooks again
    - even though we're talking about hardware, the OS is a major part of experiencing that hardware, so it's definitely a consideration
    - I've also got a friend who actually had to work with Macs.. he's still on Windows for good reasons
    Reply
  • Dman23 - Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - link

    Hey, sorry for the late response. Life you know... Anyways, why would you post a comment just to placate what you call "anti-Apple" crowd?? Are you THAT influenced by what people say that you feel the need to post a comment that you don't necessarily believe in but to prevent internet trolls from flaming you?!? That whole first part of that sentence has me confused / worried because as an esteemed reviewer @ AnandTech.com, I would hope that what you post is what your believe to be true (however wrong your may be ;) ) and has nothing to do with some dofus individual claiming "Mac SUX, Apple can Sux My Butt" comments from trolls on the internet.

    Also, Apple has been outgrowing the PC Market the last several (6 or 7?) years. To say that part of the reason you are hesitant to recommend the Mac because you don't want to "be part of the trendy crowd" is ridiculous. Were not talking about a clothing-line company here, were talking about a great electronic American Company here. "Trendy" has nothing to do with it.

    In addition, I never stated that EVERYONE prefers Mac OS X, I said that a "majority... are glad they made the decision." There's a HUGE distinction between the two. Also, why is it that the Senior Editor(? sorry, not sure of your official title) of Mobile Hardware isn't reviewing Apple's MOBILE Hardware?? I love Anand and I think he's reviews are thorough and great but doesn't it make sense (especially in articles like these where ostensibly you are giving recommendations on the "Best" Mobile Hardware) to have your Senior Mobile Editor have intimate knowledge of all mobile hardware that is reviewed on the site, in order to truely give the "Best" recommendations on mobile hardware?? Makes all the sense in the world to me.

    The only reason why I could think of you guys deciding not to involve you in reviewing Apple products is because of some sort of preconceived bias against using Apple hardware. Personally, I have more faith in you to not let your biases (whether it's because your grew up with only Windows Products, or your a really big XBox fan, etc.) get in the way of making the best recommendations for each class of product. I say this because when it comes to focusing on the "PC-Windows"-side of things, your recommendations are top notch in my humble opinion and you fairly review every Windows laptop / mobile hardware that comes your way.

    Anyways, call me crazy but like I said, if your going to create these "Best... " Recommendation Lists, then as Senior Editor of Mobile Hardware, it is in the best interests of AnandTech's readers and this website, for you to have good knowledge of Apple mobile hardware, in addition to your knowledge of Windows hardware, for your to truly provide good "Best of..." recommendation lists.
    Reply
  • Space cadet - Friday, May 10, 2013 - link

    Jarred your passionate bias reduces your credibility. You sound like you know what your talking about then comes this totally irrational and seemingly uninformed hatred of any thing Apple. That totally is inconsistent with what I would call a trusted informed unbiased product reviewer.j
    Just saying...
    Reply
  • MrSpadge - Saturday, April 20, 2013 - link

    "millions of people that switch from Windows to OS X everyday"

    To answer with another hyperbole: then OS X is only a couple of days old, is it?
    Reply
  • nikon133 - Monday, April 22, 2013 - link

    I was thinking, oh my God, there must be couple of billion Macs in the wild - at least! What devilish conspiracy is hiding them from us ordinary people? ;) Reply
  • Dman23 - Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - link

    It's not hyperbole... Apple just came out with their quarterly report and they sold about 4 Million Macs, half of which where to new customers. Do the simple math and that is 2 MILLION customers that were more then likely Windows customers.

    So yes... millions DO switch from Windows computers.
    Reply
  • jabber - Saturday, April 20, 2013 - link

    Millions switching to OSX everyday?

    So Apple should be shifting at least 730 million Macs a year then?

    Again...hyperbole?
    Reply
  • Dman23 - Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - link

    @MrSpadge @Jabber

    It's a damn expression... Jesus. If you actually quote my WHOLE sentence I said, "hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people switch from Windows to OS X everyday." Point being, there are LOTS of people, over a given period of time, that switch from Windows to OS X.
    Reply
  • jabber - Saturday, April 20, 2013 - link

    I remember trying OSX about a year ago. Hadn't used a Mac since 1988 so I was pretty out of touch with them. There I was prepared to have my mind blown by the experience and...

    ...Wow, what a disappointment! I could not believe why folks rave about it so much. After using Windows 7 since release OSX to me just felt very old fashioned and clunky. I stuck with it for a week and then handed it back.

    OSX certainly wasn't a step forward for me. As for Windows 8, it's fine, no issues using it here.
    Reply
  • mr_tawan - Monday, April 22, 2013 - link

    I think, in term of usability, it's not really a huge step forward comparing with the prior version (OS9). Sometime I even think it's a hair better than Windows 3.11 in this area :)

    Anyway it's just personal preference. People have their own tastes.

    I prefers my Vaio S (2012) over MBA. I can use OSX or whatsoever (I've tried using it for months, although I don't really like it, I can use it just fine). Using Windows is not either advantage or disadvantage to me. It just merely a tool that I can use.
    Reply

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