Living with an Ultrabook - life on the lighter side

Posted by Rob Enderle

The Ultrabook can basically be described as a Mac Book Air for the non-Apple user. However, the form factor does take a bit of getting used to.

However, given that the Ultrabook is being pushed hard by both Microsoft and Intel, I figured I’d give three different models a test drive and see what happens.

I soon discovered the average user probably won't see much benefit with an Ultrabook - unless he or she is willing to reconsider certain notions. An OMG moment will likely follow.

The Ultrabook Advantage

The three devices I’ve been switching between illustrates some of the critical differences in the Ultrabook class. Each offers distinct advantages and disadvantages, while showcasing the importance of selecting a product based on the criterion that are most important to you. 

One initial impression? Frankly, I didn’t really see that much difference in weight. Then again, this could be because, like a lot of folks, my backpack has become a gadget black hole and it contains plug adapters, extra cables, wall wart charges and a bunch of other crap I rarely need or use except on long trips.  

So I started with a fresh backpack for a day, and all I really wanted was an Ultrabook and my Kindle Fire. After that, well, the transformation was truly amazing. With an old laptop and charger I typically start out at around 6 pounds. With an Ultrabook? Say approximately half of that, while the Kindle only adds a bit over a pound more. The end result? A backpack that typically was close to 25 pounds (loaded) dropped down to below 10 pounds without all of the crap I no longer needed. In fact, with just the laptop and charger the thing practically felt empty.    

My first suggestion: if you really want to feel an amazing difference, start with an empty backpack and don’t put in anything you don’t absolutely need. The difference in weight is truly amazing, as suddenly, I no longer feel like Quasimodo. 

Also: kiss off optical drives - this class doesn’t have them and most come with SSDs, which makes for amazingly fast boot up and shut down times. Going in and out of suspend is way faster than opening up the screen. You typically can get them with I3, I5, or I7 processors with I5s being the most common and typically what I’d recommend. However the one i3 product I tested was fine, and if price is a concern, well then, it really isn’t a bad option.

The Ultrabook Differences

The three Ultrabooks I tested were the Dell XPS 13, Toshiba Z830, and Asus Zenbook UX31. All were in the preferred 13.3” configuration, with approximately 8 hours of battery life in normal use. The two products from Toshiba and Asus are already shipping, while the Dell was a production prototype (firmware wasn’t final and the power supply was not yet optimized for this configuration – it was heavy, this’ll be fixed when it ships).   

The Asus is the best looking but it also had the least durable finish. Nevertheless, it is the most consumer-centric product. Plus, both the Asus and Dell were loaded with facial recognition software for security purposes and the software seemed to work just fine.

Asus ZenbookThe Zenbook is obviously a consumer optimized design and the finish, while beautiful, looked easy to scratch. Essentially, like with an Apple device, this is clearly design over function with a focus on beauty.

It felt relatively sturdy, but the finish would undoubtedly require care. While I didn’t mind using the Zenbook, I liked the keyboard the least of the three, and yes, keyboard feel really does matter a lot to me. 

Still, it wasn’t bad - but while the metallic keys were pretty, I honestly prefer the backlit feature of the other two products. The Zenbook has a strong 450 nit screen, but lacked the Gorilla glass of the Dell. Plus, it was loaded with an SD card reader, something which is important to a lot of us. Please note, I really don’t want to downplay how gorgeous the Zenbook truly is - because the device looks like it was carved out of a single bloc of aluminum.    

The Asus uses an Apple-like charger with the plug in the transformer - which unfortunately doesn’t work well with power strips - so the first accessory I’d get for the Zenbook would be a short power strip extender. Interestingly enough, the Asus is also the only product that clearly seemed to target women, as color choices include both gold and pink.    

While the Toshiba I was sent didn’t have a fingerprint scanner installed, it is a feature of the higher-priced model and the only one with this option. And yes, Toshiba clearly chose to make weight a major difference over its rivals, as their Ultrabook was a half-pound lighter. However, it felt like the most fragile of the trio, and while it never broke, the amount of flex it took did concern me.   

Toshiba ultrabookIn the past, I’ve seen flex notebooks survive events and scenarios  (like being packed in a suitcase) that more rigid and sturdy feeling products don’t - but obviously, I wouldn’t want to test this in a real-world situation with any product.   

Yet, the Toshiba offered two significant advantages: the best port selection and the ability to turn off the touchpad. This is a feature I’ve grown to love, it was also the only i3 product in the group, as the Asus and Dell were i5s, but still, I didn’t notice any performance problems. 

The Dell comes across as the most balanced Ultrabook, as the company had waited the longest to bring its device to market. And, while the XPS 13 isn’t as nice looking as the Asus or as light as the Toshiba, it manages to strike a nice balance between looks and durability. Yes, Dell uses Gorilla Glass along with a 300 nit screen - not as bright as the Asus, but brighter than the Toshiba.

Plus, the XPS 13 is sturdier, with a sculpted keyboard, which is quite important for those of us who type. Finally, Dell adopted an edge-to-edge treatment with the display that makes this product closer to an 11” notebook in size - even though it only has a 13.3” screen.   

In the end, the Asus was the prettiest, the Toshiba the lightest and potentially the most feature rich, but the Dell was the most balanced and it had the sturdiness, and the keyboard design (including backlighting) I prefer. However the Toshiba was a very close second. Then again, I really can’t stop looking at the Asus, as it is truly desk art. On another day I might have concluded differently.  

Wrapping Up:  I’m Converted

I used the Ultrabook test drive as a reason to clean out my backpack, and now I've become one of the converted. The long battery life, coupled with the incredibly light weight has taken, quite literally, a huge weight from my shoulders and back. And trust me, if you are like me and rarely put a backpack on properly, this new form factor is far more painless.   

Of course, my experience only illustrates that choosing an Ultrabook isn’t as simple as it appears. Simply put, each has its advantages and disadvantages. In the end, I was propelled towards the Dell, but you might be tempted by the Asus, Toshiba or one of the many other Ultrabooks on the market. In any event, you are unlikely to go wrong with any of these products. Good hunting!