Intel’s ultrabook specification has matured from a fledgling initiative with promise and occasional glimmers of greatness, to a booming business trend with virtually all the major players in mobile computing now trying to one-up each other. It has gotten to the point that it’s almost not enough to just deliver a plain, utilitarian notebook. Ultrabooks no longer are “subnotebooks.” They’re beautiful thin and light machines with fewer and fewer compromises that need to be made to hit the form-factor and battery life constraints of an ultra-light. These days they’re selling like proverbial hotcakes and with the holidays upon us, a few manufactures are just hitting stride with some truly stand-out designs.
Here are my top three favorite machines in the ultrabook category currently and I’ll toss an honorable mention as well. I will preface this by noting that these are my favorite ultra-thin and light machines, regardless of cost. These are the machines I feel represent the best of breed currently.
Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro
I’m listing Lenovo’s latest Yoga machine first because I really like it a lot. In fact, depending on my mood, it could be my favorite of the bunch. The Yoga 2 Pro is a svelte 3 pound, .61-inch thin machine based on Intel’s 4th generation Haswell processor. I recently took a look at a model based on a Core i5-4200U dual core at 1.6GHz with boost speeds to 2.6GHz. Also on board is Windows 8.1, 4GB of 1600MHz DDR3 RAM, a 128GB Solid State Drive, a 720p HD webcam and Intel 802.11b/g/n wireless, as well as Bluetooth 4. However, one of the most stand-out features of the Yoga 2 Pro is its absolutely gorgeous 13.3-inch QHD+ full touch display with its super tight 3200X1800 native resolution. It sports an IPS display with wide 170 degree viewing angles and 350 nits of brightness. It’s easily one of the nicest, high resolution displays I’ve ever laid eyes for any 13-inch notebook. As configured, the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro retails for $1099 but current models come with a larger 256GB SSD. The exterior finish of the Yoga 2 Pro is a matte, almost textured surface that virtually eliminates fingerprints. And of course, the machine’s fully articulating hinges allow it to flip and bend into a completely flat tablet mode, folded-over tent mode or propped-up stand mode for touch-centric control, as well as traditional notebook mode. With its gorgeous display, killer mechanical design and Lenovo’s usual high quality backlit keyboard, it’s both a head-turner and a workhorse that, with its fast SSD and Haswell dual-core CPU, can deliver performance or just sip battery life when not called upon.
Acer Aspire S7
This machine from Acer came out a while ago but has recently been refreshed with Haswell and I took a look at a model that was also based on the Core i5-4200U. For $1399, however, we were also treated to a pair of 64GB SSDs in RAID 0 for a total of 128GB and 8GB of 1600MHz DDR3 RAM. Talk about fast. This notebook rips up the storage benchmarks and boots in a blink. The Aspire S7 also has a high res IPS display albeit at a more modest 1920X1080. Unless you’re really a pixel snob, on a 13.3-inch display, this is more than enough real estate. The Aspire S7 also has wide swing hinges for its display, though it stops at 180 degrees lying flat adjacent to the keyboard, which by the way is also backlit in a cool, electroluminescent blue-green hue. It’s also a gorgeous machine with its “Crystal White” exterior and a display that is sheathed in Corning Gorilla Glass for a bit of added durability. It’s ever so slightly thinner and lighter than the Yoga 2 Pro, if you’re looking to shave as much off as possible – at only .5-inches thick and 2.87 pound of featherweight portability. Just keep any eye out for the different SKUs on this one. There are a bunch of older models out there still, (which you can save a few pesos on by the way), but they aren’t based on the latest Intel Haswell CPUs but rather the previous generation of Ivy Bridge processors. Just look for Core i5-4XXX in the processor specs if you want to ensure you’re getting a Haswell-powered machine. Intel’s Haswell microarchitecture offers better battery life and better performance in certain scenarios, like graphics and gaming, among other features.
It seems like Toshiba started the super high resolution display trend for ultrabooks earlier this year when they first introduced the KIRABook (yes, they capitalize the KIRA and I’m not sure why). Toshiba’s KIRABook has a 13.3-inch 10-point touch display with a high-DPI 2560X1440 native resolution and it’s also pretty darn gorgeous. This ultrabook is built with a brushed magnesium alloy chassis that’s slightly thicker (still a super thin at.7-inches) than either the Aspire S7 or the Yoga 2 Pro but manages to sneak in at just under 3 lbs. Its spacious 256GB SSD is also blisteringly fast for both reads and writes, tested at just under 500MB/s both ways and with most configs outfitted with 8GB of RAM, it’s a very responsive machine. The KIRABook also has a Harman-Kardon speaker system that actually produces reasonably good sound for a notebook setup. Toshiba hasn’t rolled out a Haswell update for the KIRABook yet, however, they do offer Core i7 dual-core equipped models that will TurboBoost up to 3.1GHz for a bit more general purpose horsepower. Then again, this is also one of the pricier ultrabooks out there these days starting at $1299 and topping out at $1559 for a Core i7-3535U-equipped model.
Honorable Mention – Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus
If you’re hell-bent on Haswell, I’d suggest Samsung’s ATIV Book 9 Plus as an alternate. The ATIV Book 9 Plus also has a ridiculously high resolution 13.3-inch QHD+ display with 3200X1800 native resolution. For a similar build-out to the Lenovo Yogo 2 Pro (Core i5-4200U, 4GB of DDR3, 128GB SSD), you will pay a bit more for it, however, at around $1349 currently. The ATIV Book 9 Plus also weighs around 3 lbs and is .54-inches thin with a “Mineral Ash Black” finish that offers a really nice premium look and feel. Its speaker system is also pretty solid for a thin and light notebook as well. It’s a great machine all around but my opinion is the Yoga 2 Pro offers a slightly better value for the money.
Truth told, you really can’t go wrong with any of these machines and they all deliver a premium ultrabook experience. Sure, they don’t hit that $800 – $1000 price point that Intel initially set the bar for a couple years back but then again, QHD+ touch displays weren’t an option back then either. Battery life with any of these notebooks averages well over 7 hours as well, an uptime figure that, prior to Haswell, was a rarity for 3 pound class machines. With Windows 8.1 refinements improving on Microsoft’s OS and touch interface, it’s a really good time to consider a thin and light ultrabook. 2013 was kind of a bumpy year. Perhaps we all could use a little retail therapy.