The Ultrabook – What is it and should you get one?

Chances are, you’ve been inundated with ads for Ultrabooks. The Ultrabook movement was a push by Intel to get computer manufacturers to aim for thinner, more-portable laptops for consumers. Essentially this was in response to the runaway success of the MacBook Air. Say what you want about Apple, but the MacBook Air is a beautiful device. However, I’m not a fan of the Mac operating system, which leaves me to choose from the various offerings of PC manufacturers. First generation Ultrabooks were an okay bunch, but this second generation is where the real progress is cropping up. I pay attention to the tech industry by reading a ton of blogs (TheVerge, Anandtech, Engadget, Ars Technica, etc.) and by spending way too much money buying my own gadgets. While I’m not expert, I like to think that I’m “in the know”, and decided that with my combination of knowledge about tech and my desire to help people get the best value for their money it made sense to explain what an Ultrabook is and put together a list of the best Ultrabooks under $800.

Since everybody has slightly different requirements in a laptop, I don’t think that there is a single best Ultrabook. However, there is definitely a different between an average Ultrabook and the best Ultrabooks. So I do my best to highlight the differences that likely matter to you so that you can make the best selection for your own needs.

Ultrabook is a marketing term created by Intel. They set out specific requirements for what an Ultrabook has to be in order to use the designation. Intel does this to make sure that the Ultrabook brand isn’t diluted, and that consumers are getting what they expect when they purchase an Ultrabook. However, I think that in some cases manufacturers get away with using inferior components and still being an Ultrabook, and in other instances, some very thin and light laptops are kept from being an official Ultrabook because they actually go beyond the requirements and are superior. For my lists I think it’s best to include other thin+light laptops even if they don’t technically meet Intel’s Ultrabook specifications so that we have the best possible list of Ultrabooks under $800.

For reference, here are Intel’s requirements for 2nd generation Ultrabooks, which Intel announced in June 2012:

  • 3rd Generation Ivy Bridge Ultra-Low Voltage Processor
  • 13″ Ultrabooks must be under 18mm thick when closed; 14″ Ultrabooks under 21mm
  • 5 hour minimum battery life
  • Boot from hibernation within 7 seconds
  • Must have at least one USB 3.0 port
  • Minimum data transfer speed of 80 MB/s

These requirements are expected to be in place until mid-2013, when Intel officially releases the Shark Bay (Ultrabook 3rd generation) requirements.

If these specifications just seemed like a bunch of “tech talk”, don’t worry. They’re put in place to make sure that you’re getting a thin and light laptop that can do what you want it to. I’m going to go into some more of the details and how you can determine if an Ultrabook makes sense for your needs.

Internal Specifications of an Ultrabook

One of the most-defining specifications of an Ultrabook is the ULV (ultra-low voltage) processor. Most Ultrabooks have an i5 or i7 ULV processor, which is what you’re going to want to aim for. Don’t opt for a Core i3 ULV CPU, which is sometimes used to bring down the price of the laptop. Using an i3 processor will result an a significantly inferior computing experience.

Most Ultrabooks will come with 4GB of RAM. In most cases, the RAM is soldered onto the motherboard, which means that you cannot upgrade it yourself. This typically has to be done in order to achieve the thinness of these laptops. Ultrabooks will also rely on integrated graphics, rather than having a discrete (separate) video card. Intel’s HD 4000 integrated graphics are great for surfing the net, watching HD video, editing photos, and doing some light gaming. Just don’t expect to run graphics-intensive games on an Ultrabook.

In most cases, Ultrabooks will come with a SSD (solid-state drive). So instead of using a typical hard drive, which has spinning parts and is typically less reliable, a faster, more-reliable SSD is used. Now, when I say that SSDs are faster, I mean it. Switching from a standard hard drive to an SSD is probably the best bang-for-your-buck upgrade you can make to any computer.

External Specifications of an Ultrabook

As already discussed, Ultrabooks have to be both thin and light. Other than that, there aren’t many requirements for the external specs of an Ultrabook. Because the internal specifications are fairly similar among the different offerings, it’s the external specifications that truly differentiate many of these Ultrabooks.

The display resolution found on most Ultrabooks is 1366 x 768. In my opinion, this resolution is horrible and I wish that Intel would include a higher resolution in its next Ultrabook requirements. The race for smartphone and tablet resolution is heating up, but laptop resolution in general has been stagnant. I imagine over the next year this is going to heat up in the Ultrabook space. The best Ultrabooks feature resolutions at least one step above this, and some feature full 1080p displays.

The quality of the display is another area where manufacturers can truly differentiate themselves. Most laptops come with glossy TN panels, which have poor viewing angles and can drive you crazy if you’re trying to use your laptop outdoors and with indoor lights behind you due to the reflections on the screen. The better Ultrabooks use IPS displays, which have superior viewing angles and typically look better too. Some manufacturers also offer matte displays to keep reflections off your screen. I personally won’t even consider a glossy laptop any longer. My last three laptops have all been matte.

As you would expect with a laptop that is thin and light, there is less room for ports. Most Ultrabooks come with two USB ports, one or two options for video-out (typically VGA or HDMI, although DisplayPort or Mini DisplayPort is much preferred), an SD card reader, and maybe an ethernet port (although many are ditching the ethernet port in exchange for an ethernet dongle that can be connect to USB).

Because of their thin profile, the sound systems found on Ultrabooks often leave a lot to be desired. Keyboards are also similarly hit-or-miss. Because of their thin profile, Ultrabook keyboards typically can’t have a lot of travel. This results in either good or horrible keyboards.

The final external factor is the overall aesthetics of the Ultrabook. Some, such as the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A, look very similar to a MacBook Air, while others, such as the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, retain their corporate design. And then others, such as the HP Envy 14 Spectre, which is covered in glass, set out to chart new territory. Which Ultrabook designs look best is largely subjective, and it’s something you’re going to have to determine for yourself.

Should you get an Ultrabook?
If you’re in the market for a new laptop, then an Ultrabook should absolutely be looked at. Laptops have always been meant to be portable computers. However, as you’ve probably seen, many of those laptops weren’t all that portable. Many laptops were thick and heavy, and also required you to bring along the power cord if you planned on using it for more than an hour or two. Ultrabooks do away with these problems, giving you a thing and light laptop that can be unplugged for at least four hours in real-world conditions. This means you can toss it in your bag or carry it to the coffee shop in the morning, or you can easily use it on your lap while sitting on the couch.

But in order to achieve the thin profile and better battery life, compromises had to be made. Ultrabooks, as I mentioned, use an ultra-low voltage processor. These processors require a lot less power consumption, but they are also less powerful than a standard-voltage processor. However, Intel has really been bringing it’s A game when it comes to their recent batch of processors, and the processing and graphics power of these Ultrabooks will be powerful enough for standard uses. You can surf the web, watch YouTube, use MS Office applications, edit pictures in Photoshop, and do most normal computing tasks. If, however, you play high-end video games or do a lot of video editing, then an Ultrabook is not going to be powerful enough for you (but there are still some thin + light options for these users). Oh, and don’t forget about the fact that you’re unlikely to find a DVD drive in your Ultrabook. These optical drives take up a lot of space, so getting rid of them allows for thinner Ultrabooks. If you feel that you can’t do without a CD/DVD drive you can always purchase an external drive that will plug into a USB port for those times when you need it.

I think that the Ultrabook makes sense for a majority of laptop users. It provides the portability that laptops were meant to provide, while still being powerful enough for most tasks. If you want to explore your Ultrabook options, check out the list of best Ultrabooks under $800 that I’ve put together.

One Response to “The Ultrabook – What is it and should you get one?”

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  1. eemusings says:

    Hmm. Would something like the Samsung ATIV be an ultrabook or is it simply a tablet with a keyboard attachment? (I got to play with one for a few weeks and while I really like the setup, before long the mousepad and touchscreen started playing up).

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