Selecting an Ivy Bridge Notebook, Part 2: Ultrabooks

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In Part 2 of my series covering my quest to buy a new notebook to replace my HP Envy 14, I’ll talk about some of the Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks that I considered as part of my search for a new thin and light notebook. As I mentioned in Part 1, I’ve actually settled on a 2012 MacBook Air, for a variety of reasons, of which the inability to find a shipping Windows Ultrabook without a major compromise or concern was perhaps the most important.

Before I list a handful of the machines I’ve been looking at, let me establish the baseline criteria that I’ve used in arriving at my decision.

  • It must have an SSD. I’ve gone back and forth on the idea of a spinning disk with external SSD cache, which some Ultrabook manufacturers have implemented to lower costs and increase storage. After seeing the overall improvement an SSD made in my HP Envy 14, however, I’ve decided that an SSD not only improves performance dramatically, but it also results in a much quieter machine. I was surprised at just how noisy was the original spinning disk.
  • It must provide at least five hours of real-world battery life. Yes, not coincidentally, that’s the Ultrabook minimum specification, but what’s written down on paper doesn’t always translate into actual performance. I want a machine that will get me through a full business day of work, which in practical terms (and given that I’m often using a tablet throughout the day) usually translates to around five hours of actual computing time.
  • It must have an excellent screen. I’ve noticed that screen quality can be all over the map in tablets and notebooks, and I’m a stickler for good color and quality text (which also means good contrast). Whichever notebook I buy must have a high-quality screen with a usable resolution, which for me is likely something significantly less than the MacBook Pro’s Retina display. Also, I’m only considering 13.3″ screens (although I did stretch to 14″ to include the VIZIO Thin+Light machine).
  • It must have an excellent keyboard. At least 90% of what I use a notebook for involves extensive writing, and so a keyboard with a good feel and solid travel is a must. Plus, a backlit keyboard is an added value for those times when I’m working in darker environments. An Ultrabook could be perfect in every other way, but if it has a bad keyboard, it’s off the list.

Ultrabooks
What follows is a short survey of some of the Windows Ultrabooks I’ve taking a look at as I decide which new notebook to buy. It’s a rather large field, and there’s enough similarity between them that it could be the simplest little thing that makes one stand out over another. None of this will consistent a review of any machine–I’m basically providing a glimpse into my own internal process for making a purchasing decision.

Note also that although I’ll try to be accurate, this whole topic has been such a moving target that it’s difficult to know when a given machine was introduced or how many iterations it’s gone through. I’ll apologize for any inaccuracies beforehand, and should I make any I’ll go ahead and say it’s the manufacturers’ fault for creating such a confusing mess in the marketplace.

Acer
Acer’s first Ultrabook was the Aspire S3, and it was known for its relatively low price and inexpensive build. It also used a spinning disk in place of SSD, and was a real mix in terms of performance and overall build quality. Overall, the Aspire S3 seemed to garner mixed reviews, being ultimately praised for the low price but serving as a reminder that you get what you pay for.

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Acer’s newest Ultrabook, the Aspire S5, looks to change some of that. Not only is it the thinnest Ultrabook announced so far (or so Acer claims), but it also lands firmly in the performance camp with SSD options and in being the first Windows Ultrabook with a Thunderbolt port. Ranging from .44 inches to .59 inches and weighing only 2.65 lbs., it’s definitely thin and light. Unfortunately, the S5 is shipping with a 1366X768 resolution screen, which is simply too low a resolution in this day and age.

It’s also no longer the price leader at the low end. Since we’re only considering Ivy Bridge machines here, the S5 looks to $1,399.99 for a model with an Ivy Bridge processor, 4GB of RAM, and 256GB of SSD (actually two 128GB SSDs in RAID 0). The S5 also uses a motorized tray that lowers underneath the unit to expose the ports, which is an innovative idea but introduces moving parts that can break over time.

Verdict: I rejected the S5 because the motorized tray is a gimmick that creates too obvious a potential point of failure down the road. Also, I decided that if I’m going to spend more than $1,400 on a machine, it has to offer more than the typical low-res screen so popular on (cheaper) Windows Ultrabooks.

ASUS
ASUS has been making some interesting devices lately, including their Transformer line of Android tablets that for me was something of a mixed bag. I tried out the Zenbook UX31E Ultrabook and liked it quite a bit, but ultimately returned it because although the performance, form factor, and screen were all excellent, the keyboard simply had too little travel and too many missed keystrokes.

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The new Zenbook Prime line of Ultrabooks, specifically the UX31A13.3″ model, takes what’s best about the UX31E and makes it better. First, there’s the option for an IPS 1920X1080 matte panel which is supposed to have excellent colors, contrast, and brightness, and which might just be more usable in direct sunlight thanks to the matte surface. They’ve fixed the keyboard as well, adding a backlight and significantly more travel. Everything else about the notebook, including a very light and thin frame and excellent performance, looks to be retained.

Pricing starts at $1,099 for a UX31A with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, and goes up from there. ASUS isn’t offering an 8GB option in the Zenbook Prime, which is a shame and far too common with Windows Ultrabooks.

Verdict: For me, 1920X1080 is just too high a resolution to be comfortable on a 13.3″ screen. It makes text too tiny, and adjusting the DPI settings in Windows 7 (or Windows 8) simply creates too many issues with user interface elements. If ASUS had kept the very good 1600X900 screen from the previous generation, I would have had to give the Zenbook Prime more serious consideration.

Dell
Dell makes a nice Ultrabook in the XPS 13, a well-built machine that packs a 13″ LCD into a frame that somewhat smaller than the MacBook Air. It’s not the least expensive Ultrabook on the market, but with a nice keyboard and generally excellent build quality, it’s probably worth it’s higher price. It probably shouldn’t be in this list, because Dell hasn’t yet updated it to Ivy Bridge, but that should happen sooner rather than later.

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Verdict: Once again, the 1366X768 screen resolution rears its ugly head, rendering the XPS 13 unworthy.

Samsung
Samsung makes two extremely thin and well-built Ultrabook-level machines (although they don’t seem inclined to use the label) in the Series 9 13.3″ and 15″ machines. The 13.3″ model in particular is quite competitive with the MacBook air, being lighter, thinner, and possessing just as solid build quality. The screen is an excellent matte 1600X900 matte screen with superior brightness. It’s also more expensive, at $1,299 for an Bridge i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB SSD (vs. $1,199 for the equivalent MacBook Air). Other configurations with 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSD will be offered.

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Two things hamper the Samsung’s suitability for me, however. First, the keyboard on the previous model I tried had very shallow keys, which I found extremely uncomfortable; I don’t believe they changed the keyboard on the new model. Second, Samsung for some reason stopped shipping with their very well-performing SSDs, replacing them instead with the notorious Sandisk U100, which has shown significantly lower performance than many other SSDs. While the slowest modern SSD is likely significantly faster than the fastest spinning disk, it’s still disappointing that Samsung would put an inferior product in such an expensive machine.

Verdict: I can’t tolerate a bad keyboard, and even if I could, I wouldn’t be happy with Samsung’s SSD choice (nor with the bit of anxiety around which SSD a purchased unit shipped with). If they were priced a little less, guaranteed a fast SSD, and I were to choose a Windows Ultrabook, the Samsung machines would be at the top of my list–but that’s a fair number of “ifs” to consider.

HP
HP makes a wide range of Ultrabooks and near-Ultrabooks (which they call “Sleekbooks”), all of which I can reject off-hand because of their 1366X768 screen resolutions. Only the HP Envy 14 Spectre offers a better screen, specifically a 14″ IPS screen at 1600X900 resolution. The Spectre also offers Gorilla Glass covering the lid and wrist wrest, good battery life, and Ivy Bridge components. It’s an expensive machine at over $1,400 for 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD.

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Verdict: The Envy 14 Spectre would be a decent enough choice, except that it’s relatively heavy at 3.98 lbs. (vs. the MacBook Air’s 2.96 lbs). Also, the glass coating seems like a gimmick to me, and in my hands-on use of the Spectre I found it simply chunkier-feeling than I like. Finally, my experience with the HP Envy 14 wasn’t so positive that I’m in a hurry to spend premium dollars on another HP notebook (and their treatment of webOS doesn’t help).

VIZIO
VIZIO, known for their budget-priced but decent quality HDTVs sold at places like Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart, and Costco (my favorite store, by the way), has entered the computer arena with a range of PCs including all-in-ones, two Ultrabooks (14″ and 15″ “Thin+Light” models), and a 15″ “Notebook” (meant, I supposed, to differentiate from the Ultrabook line). From my initial hands-on time with the machines, I was quite impressed with their screens, build quality, keyboards, and trackpads. The major disappointments with the VIZIO machines are a lack of keyboard backlighting (not a deal-breaker by any stretch) and a relative dearth of ports (only two USB 3.0 ports and a full-size HDMI port, which is a plus).

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The 14″ Thin+Light models are also priced right. An Ivy Bridge i5 model with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB runs $949, while the model with an i7 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 256GB SSD runs $1,199. Availability is sparse at the moment, but eventually you’ll be able to buy the VIZIO machines at all the same locations you can buy a VIZIO HDTV. Unfortunately, VIZIO isn’t offering an 8GB option.

Verdict: I’d be a little leery of buying a computer from a company that’s just now dipping its toes in these particular waters. Supporting a computer isn’t the same as supporting a TV, but at the same time VIZIO has some real supply-chain strengths and deep knowledge in how to pull quality components together at competitive prices. And I really did like the 14″ units I tried out. Ultimately, if I were to buy a Windows Ultrabook, I think I’d give VIZIO a try, even though I don’t really want to settle on a machine with only 4GB of RAM.

Conclusion
As I already gave away in Part 1, I decided on a MacBook Air 13.3″, primarily because each of the Windows Ultrabooks (except the VIZIO) had some killer weakness. In addition, I decided that having OS X to go with my Windows, Android, and iOS devices is a real plus. Spending over $1,000 on a new notebook and being limited to Windows seemed like a lost opportunity.

Having used the MacBook Air for a little while now has done nothing to dissuade me. It’s an excellent machine, and Apple’s customer service has proven to be just as good as people say it is. I spent quite a bit of money on this machine, $1599 for an i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD, but every component is top-notch without any worries about compromises to get the machine under a certain price-point.

I’m writing this post using Windows Live Writer in a Windows 7 virtual machine using Parallels, and it fees like I’m using a Windows machine, with benefits. Performance is excellent, and Apple’s outstanding trackpad support extends to Windows applications as well. Overall, I’m quite happy with the machine, but this project has convinced me that while the MacBook Air remains the premier thin and light computer, there are plenty of good Windows Ultrabook options.

I suggest you give Apple a try before settling on a new notebook, but if you’re determined to buy a Windows machine, then give Samsung and VIZIO your most serious consideration. If you have good eyesight and can handle small text, then the ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A is another good choice.

The bottom line: it’s a great time to be in the market for a new computer. In spite of all the talk about tablets and mobile devices in general killing off PCs, there sure are a number of great products available for the discerning shopper.

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  1. […] such a high resolution usable in a Windows machine, meets an exceeds the requirements I used in selecting the MacBook Air in the first place. It’s light, well-built, has an apparently very nice backlit keyboard, and […]

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