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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  • AssBall - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    You know what would be cool? A 17" ultrabook. You could get a nice big screen and a keyboard that is not all clusterjammed in there. I hate tiny laptop keyboards.

    Nice review Jarred. I don't think I will be picking up one of these ultra's anytime soon. Looking forward to the Samsung review though.
  • Malih - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    yes, I've been wondering why most thin laptops are limited to 13.3", would the extra space not be useful, or is it the limitation set by Intel, or is it because Apple don't make 15" MBA or is a 15" aluminum case cost too much to produce?

    17" might not be for everyone, but 14" or 15" are preferable for the masses, and with 15" you don't have to compete directly with Apple.
  • AssBall - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Maybe it is too expensive... I don't know. Plus the battery would be larger I suppose. It starts to get heavy and is no longer "ultra".

    I'd be very interested in a Llano based 17" Ultrabook with say a 128GB SSD, a more spread out keyboard, and a matte screen. Make the touch pad not suck too, please.

    Thanks Santa.
  • cobalt42 - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Agree with both. If they used the extra keyboard space to make a nice cursor key cluster (arrow keys as well as home/end/pgup/pgdown and ins/del), they'd get my money. The others at that size either put a numeric keypad, or worse, nothing and just waste the extra space.
  • AssBall - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Arrow keys and the home section, sometimes I wish they would toss it out because all of that stuff is on the number pad anyway. At least it is with my 12 year old WYSE keyboard. And then they could keep some space away from the standard qwerty section. I'd like that style of board. I don't much care for small function keys all crowded down either.
  • Guspaz - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Strength becomes a bigger issue. If you keep the thickness the same, but increase the size to 17", the laptop would be enormously more delicate. More stress would be placed on it, if only because of the whole law-of-the-lever type thing. They'd have to make the 17" ultrabooks correspondingly thicker and more durable, and that would negate at least some of the advantage.

    A 15" ultrabook could be a lot more interesting, especially if they take advantage of a thinner bezel to fit the larger screen into a chassis that was only slightly larger than existing 13.3" ultrabooks.
  • Iketh - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    nah I don't think durability would be hard to figure out, tho achieving that durability would likely increase the cost a good bit
  • wadcock2 - Saturday, April 7, 2012 - link

    ultrabook is define by Intel as a subnotebook with smaller size and weight. They are usually less than 6.5 lbs. They often have 7 -10 battery life (yea!). and are thin (< .7") to compete with Mac AirPro. There was one web page were the notebook had to fit into an 8.5"x11 interoffice mailing envelope. That also would require a smaller screen.

    I find that the 1366x768 pixel screens are too small to hole a whole video, photo or chart of today's web pages.

    Yes, I'd like a light weight 17" laptop with long battery life and high screen resolution. The nearly 10 lbs plus another 2-4 for the power adapter makes it heavy to carry around and heavy on my lap.
  • bji - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Apple is supposed to be coming out with a 15 inch macbook air late Q1 next year. I am waiting for this and it will buy one; it will replace my 7 year old Panasonic Toughbook Y2 that thus far has not had a competitor for light weight, screen size, and build quality in the 14 inch+ size range.
  • niva - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Right on, 17" frame will probably allow them to squeeze in a decent GPU in there too, something better than the integrated intel HD chip. Possibly even room for a hard drive to add more storage overall.

    The big thing I'm taking away from this review is the terrible screens. I'm surprised that they are that bad compared to the Apple screens. As much as many of us hate Apple and bash on them in the comments they've always been good about their displays.

    Dell and Samsung are the companies who can buck this trend with terrible displays in these devices, lets hope it happens soon.

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