Ultimate Ultrabook Shootout

Testing of eight Windows 8 ultrabooks reveals that users looking for a sleek form factor will have to accept tradeoffs.

We tested eight thin, light, stylish ultrabooks, all with touchscreens and all running Windows 8 Professional. They are: the astonishingly thin Acer Aspire S7 and Asus Zenbook UX31A, the flip-screen Dell XPS 12, HP’s Envy 400t-12, Lenovo’s business oriented ThinkPad Carbon X1 and the flexible Yoga 13, the Samsung ATIV 700T that transforms into a tablet, and the Sony Vaio T-15. Our favorite, because it was the easiest to type on and the easiest to use overall, was the Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1. Here are the reviews:

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Acer Aspire S7

Acer Aspire S7

Pros: Extremely thin, very light, strong and flexible.

Cons: Very flat keyboard with no significant key travel, shorter than average battery life.

Price: $1,499 (Amazon)

The Acer Aspire S7 is an ultra-thin computer in glossy white. The keyboard is extremely flat, the keys have so little travel that it slows down your typing. Also, Acer has eliminated the top row of the keyboard, where the function keys are. Those keys now share space with the number keys, which means you must press the “Fn” key and the number key to get to whatever the function key would normally do. On the plus side, the Gorilla Glass top cover, coupled with the chassis milled from a single block of aluminum, make this ultrabook very strong. The S7 has what Acer calls dual torque hinges that allow the screen to be folded back so that it’s flat on the table.

ASUS Zenbook UX31A

ASUS Zenbook UX31A

Pros: Very stylish, includes a portfolio, very fast.

Cons: Keyboard is hard to type on.

Price: $1,698 (Amazon)

This is the most attractive ultrabook in this test and perhaps on the market. The gleaming machined metallic case on this computer lends an authoritative feel to its wafer-thin appearance. With a third generation i7 processor and a high-speed solid state disk (SSD), this computer is fast. Even better, it’s easy to use as a touch-screen device. Unfortunately, the totally flat keyboard and the square flat keys don’t yield easily to content creation.

Dell XPS 12 Convertible Ultrabook

Dell XPS 12 Convertible Ultrabook

Pros: Unique swiveling screen converts into a tablet, DisplayPort allows better video on external monitor.

Cons: Fairly thick for an ultrabook.

Price: $1,199 (Dell)

Dell takes a unique approach for converting its XPS 12 ultrabook into a tablet. The screen rotates around side-mounted pivots so that all you have to do is push the top of the screen and it rotates away from you, allowing you to close the screen, but keeping the screen visible on top. This allows the top of the screen containing the webcam to remain on top, and a Windows button that remains on the bottom. The XPS 12 is a little hefty, but the 12-inch screen is small enough that it’s not as cumbersome as some other convertibles. The keyboard is slightly smaller than most of the other ultrabooks, but not so small as to make typing difficult.

HP Envy TouchSmart 4t-1200 Ultrabook

HP Envy TouchSmart 4t-1200 Ultrabook

Pros: Full-sized keyboard, full-sized connection ports, low price

Cons: Insensitive touchscreen, flat keyboard

Price: $700 (HP)

The HP Envy 4t 1200 is a big ultrabook. It’s so big that it exceeds Intel’s specifications for thickness by 2 mm, and it’s almost as heavy as my ThinkPad laptop. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. By being as thick as it is, the HP Envy has room for an Ethernet connector without a dongle. It has three USB ports and an HDMI port. It has room for speakers on the top deck where you can hear them. Unfortunately, HP didn’t use that extra thickness to make sculpted keys, but at least the keyboard is large enough to type on comfortably.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch

Pros: Keyboard is exceptionally easy to use, physical interface is familiar, very rugged device

Cons: None that were significant.

Price: $1,451 (Lenovo)

We found the X1 Carbon Touch to be fast and intuitive. The 180 GB solid state drive was extremely fast, allowing the X1 to boot almost immediately. The standard Wi-Fi supports 802.11n with two spatial streams, which will give it much better bandwidth than is normally available on portable computers. The Wi-Fi hardware is designed to work as a wireless hotspot. We appreciated the precision of the TrackPoint pointing device when it came to using the ribbon bar in Microsoft Office. The overall design of the keyboard, the clarity of the screen, and the ability to move intuitively from the keyboard to the screen to the touchpad and back made the Lenovo Carbon X1 Touch a pleasure to use.

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13

Pros: Very flexible in physical configuration

Cons: Non-standard keyboard that’s hard to use, lower video resolution than most

Price: $921 (Amazon)

The IdeaPad Yoga 13 is outfitted with a dual-hinge design that allows it to be folded back on itself to create a variety of configurations. Because of the need for the screen to fold over into Tablet Mode, the Yoga 13 needs a screen that’s flat enough to be a stable base. This means that the keyboard is very flat, and that the keys are nearly flush with the surface of the device. Combined with the location of some function and directional keys to the right of the primary keyboard, this creates an ultrabook that is hard to type on.

The biggest question is whether the versatility is worth the compromises – especially to the keyboard.

Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T

Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T

Pros: Thin and light, screen detaches to form tablet. Rear camera in addition to front webcam

Cons: Small keyboard

Price: $1,100 (Amazon)

We found the Samsung touchscreen to be easy to use and responsive. What’s better was that the finger pressure required to use the touch features was well calibrated. Samsung made some thoughtful design choices with the 700T. When you open the top of the ultrabook and pivot the screen back, this also raises the rear of the keyboard, making typing easier. The same mechanical hinge that provides a pivot for the screen and keyboard also makes for a secure connection. With the keyboard attached, the 700T is a nice ultrabook that’s very flexible, but it does require compromises. It’s thicker and heavier than the Surface Pro as well as some of the other ultrabooks in this review.

Sony Vaio T Series 15 Ultrabook

Sony Vaio T Series 15 Ultrabook

Pros: Excellent screen, better than average keyboard.

Cons: Much heavier than other ultrabooks, may not fit into your laptop bag.

Price: $1,000 (Sony)

The Sony T-15 is the largest ultrabook in this test, and it’s one of the larger ultrabooks you’ll find on the market. This computer has a 15-inch screen, a full-sized keyboard, complete with a full-sized numeric keypad to the right. But despite its size, it’s still as slim as most of the other ultrabooks. The increased size makes the screen more useful, especially if you’re using it to look at images or you’re trying to look at more of a document on the screen. The larger keyboard is especially nice for typing. The hard drive is a hybrid drive, which means it has a solid state cache drive in line with the hard drive.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.