by Jayesh Shinde & Nikhil Pradhan

The Ultraportable Laptop Showdown

Feb 09, 200914 mins
AppleOperating SystemsTechnology Industry

What makes a good ultraportable? Our lab tested the ultra-stylish Apple MacBook, Samsung's new X360, Lenovo's Thinkpad X300--the business warhorse, Dell's Latitude E4200 and five more laptops. The laptops were compared on portability (weight and battery efficiency), as well as features, design, ease of use and overall performance.

What makes a good ultraportable? Before we began our comparison, we had to make sure that all our parameters were pat down and accurately described a machine that would not only be a very good performer but also be able to stand on their own with regard to aesthetics and overall design.

First we ensured we had with us laptops that best represented the segment. As a result, our labs welcomed the ultra-stylish Apple MacBook, Samsung’s new X360, Lenovo’s Thinkpad X300- the business warhorse, Dell’s Latitude E4200 and five more laptops.For the testing process, we decided to include a number of parameters. However, the most important of these was the portability factor itself, which we figured was directly affected by the weight of the laptop and how efficient its battery was. Further, we proceeded to test them on their features and specifications, design and ease of use and overall performance.

Samsung X360: PCW RATING 86/100

Dubbed as a Macbook Air rival, the Samsung X360 is by far the best ultraportable notebook in this comparison. It sets itself apart from the rest of the pack in various aspects. Despite having a 13.3-inch LED screen (1280×800 resolution), it weighs only 1.3 kg. It has the best screen quality, with a bright display, showcasing crisp images and sharp text. The screen also has exceptional viewing angles. Practicality apart, it isn’t hard to ignore the X360’s slim stylish design. It has a two-toned brushed metallic red and glossy black lid, and with exception to the base, the whole thing is washed over with black gloss. Quite attractive.

With respect to the Latitude E4200, the X360’s slightly larger form-factor enables it to pack in a bigger screen with an uncompressed chiclet-styled keyboard. The keys are evenly spaced, responsive, and have no flex to write about. The keyboard’s layout doesn’t require a learning curve, and typing on it is quite effortless. Same can be said of the X360’s touchpad and mouse buttons, responsive and effortless. The X360 scores high in terms of usability and its good build quality, despite being lightweight.

In terms of features, the X360 is based on the Intel Centrino 2 platform, with a Core 2 Duo ULV (ultra-low voltage) SU9300 1.2GHz processor. ULVs operate on lower voltages, conserving battery life with slight compromise on performance. Our benchmarks agree: although it doesn’t win any performance crown with a WorldBench 6 score of 68, the X360’s 6-cell battery beat all others in the comparison by lasting 313 minutes – very impressive. It has 2GB of RAM, Intel X4500 graphics chipset, and 128GB of SSD (solid state drive). In comparison, the Latitude E4200 and ThinkPad X300 both have a paltry 64GB SSD. Solid state drives are much faster than normal hard drives in terms of speed and access time. For example, the X360 has random read speeds of upto 140MB/s in comparison to the sluggish 45MB/s of MSI PR201.

On top of the standard input-output ports (Draft-N Wi-Fi, Gigabit Ethernet, Bluetooth 2.0), the Samsung has a cool power indicator on its battery, 1.3MP webcam, external DVD writer, docking port, and other goodies. It also deploys security features like a TPM (encryption) chip and a fingerprint reader.

Overall, the Samsung X360 is a cool laptop and it treads a fine line, offering lots of features in a compact design, and it does so excellently. The fact that its price isn’t as exorbitant as some of its competitors is music to the ears.

Dell Latitude E4200: PCW RATING 84/100

Dell’s slimmest and lightest ultraportable, sporting a 12.1-inch non-glossy screen and weighing all of 1.2 kg, is a no nonsense business laptop. It is encased in a magnesium alloy chassis, with a solid metal hinge that anchors the brushed metal lid on top. The whole unit is built like a tank. The Latitude E4200 also has some unique business features. It has a SIM card slot underneath the battery, Dell’s Control Point software (similar to Lenovo’s Think Vantage technology), and ON Reader – a rudimentary Linux-based instant-on feature that lets you access Microsoft Office and the Internet without booting into the main OS to prolong battery life.

The E4200 is based on the Intel Centrino 2 platform, powered by a Core 2 Duo ULV SU9400, 1.4GHz processor. It has 2GB of RAM, and 64GB of SSD storage. An expansion slot is placed above a smartcard reader along the left edge of the chassis. Like the X360, the Latitude E4200 has a TPM module for added security, but no fingerprint reader. Apart from the standard input-output ports, it has an eSATA, FireWire, and docking port, but disappointingly only a single USB port — the X360 has three. With respect to performance, it fared better than the X360 with a WorldBench score of 74, but the six-cell battery lasted for 283 minutes –30 minutes lesser than the Samsung X360.

The Latitude E4200 has a remote security option to safeguard your sensitive data in case the notebook gets stolen. It is a persistence BIOS module which can withstand hard drive re-formatting and OS re-installation. The stolen laptop reports its location whenever it connects online, and you can remotely delete data.

We know the E4200 has reliable business and security features, but does it still justify its atrociously high price tag of Rs. 1,70,000? We remain unconvinced. But if you’re a businessperson in search of a corporate class ultraportable notebook, and price isn’t your main constraint, you won’t go wrong with the Latitude E4200.

HP EliteBook 2530p: PCW RATING 81/100

Launched in HP’s series of business laptops, the HP EliteBook 2530p does a few things right. It has a trackpad, not in the same class as the ThinkPad X300, but a functional trackpad nonetheless. Its 12.1-inch non-glossy screen is good (but not as good as the Dell Latitude E4200), the notebook is rugged, and HP manages to squeeze in a DVD writer despite its small form factor.

The EliteBook 2530p comes with a 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo ULV SL9400 processor, 2GB of RAM and 120GB hard drive. It is based on the Intel Centrino 2 Mobile Platform, with GMA X4500 for onboard graphics. The EliteBook also incorporates Intel’s VPro technology, a unique feature in this comparison. It is especially useful for system administrators to deploy hardware-assisted security and remote system diagnostic tools. As far as performance benchmarks are concerned, the EliteBook 2530p scored 77 on WorldBench 6, our in-house real-world benchmarking suite, and the six-cell battery life was similar to the Dell Latitude E4200. It doesn’t miss out on standard connectivity ports, and there’s a nifty battery indicator to indicate how much charge is left.

However, there are a few niggling issues. The EliteBook 2530p is bulkier than the Latitude E4200, it weighs 500g more and feels too heavy. Where the Latitude E4200’s keyboard is fine, the EliteBook’s keyboard comes across as cramped and uneasy to work with. It doesn’t have an external Bluetooth or Wi-Fi switch like the E4200. Despite having a larger screen bezel than the Latitude E4200, the EliteBook doesn’t come with a webcam, which is disappointing. Instead, it has a fancy flashlight recessed where the webcam should have been. Why? Maybe it is useful when you’re working in a dark room, and hunting for keys which aren’t illuminated with the screen’s glow – what are the chances of that happening?

We felt the EliteBook 2530p was as good as the Dell Latitude E4200, but it scored poorly on portability and design, one of the most important considerations in this comparison.

LG P300-S.AP66A2: PCW RATING 80/100

LG’s P300 series of notebooks is a good value for money 13.3-inch ultraportable notebook. It has a stylish striped lid cover, with black screen bezel, and silver chassis. Features to watch out for include a fast Core 2 Duo T8100, 2GHz processor, 3GB of RAM, and a GeForce 8400M GS graphics card. It also has HDMI and FireWire apart from the standard ports, an external DVD writer, locking port, and a handy external volume switch.

This was the second best performing notebook in our comparison, scoring 88 on WorldBench. But battery life was average at 180 mins. Despite having the potential for casual gaming, this laptop has poor onboard sound. It has an average keyboard, but a good smooth touchpad. Also the LG P300 doesn’t have any security features, not even a fingerprint reader. Clearly it isn’t aimed at business personnel. The build quality isn’t too great compared to Samsung, Dell, or HP either. There’s too much plastic.

It doesn’t come with any business software, because it is more of a lifestyle product than a business ultraportable, and not the lightest one at 1.7 kg. But coupled with its good performance, and a dedicated GPU, it fits the bill of a small, all-purpose notebook perfectly.

Lenovo ThinkPad X300: PCW RATING 79/100

The ThinkPad is a famous entity in the world of business notebooks. And it brought with itself a host of expectations. The X300 is a sturdy looking machine encased in black plastic and boasts of a solid build quality. It has a 13.3 inch display which was surprisingly dull, especially when compared with the other ultraportables in our comparison. For connectivity options, the ThinkPad does have a number of ports and it also manages a DVD combo writer in its slim chassis. Wi-Fi access is made easier thanks to a physical switch to turn it on/off. Of course, there is the ThinkPad’s trademark red trackpad amidst the keys on the keyboard, which makes navigation using the mouse cursor a whole lot easier than just using a regular touchpad.

As a portable device, the X300 makes sense as it weighs just 1.6 kilograms and managed to stay alive on its battery for about 260 minutes during our tests. Plus, its wireless connection also supports draft-N, so browsing on a wireless connection will be faster. The X300 comes with a 1.2-GHz Core2Duo L7100 processor, 2GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD. However, its performance was quite disappointing during our tests. For example, in World Bench 6, it only managed 53 points, the lowest in the comparison. Its Intel GMA X3100 onboard graphics was also not enough to get double digit FPS in games like F.E.A.R. and Doom 3. Its speakers though were the best in the comparison and produced loud and clear music.

The low performance scores of the X300 can be blamed on the fact that it was released in the first quarter of last year. But it still carries a pretty high price tag of Rs.1, 27,000. Overall, though the Lenovo ThinkPad X300 is a very good portable companion if you can afford to overlook its performance and price.

MSI PR201: PCW RATING 79/100

The MSI PR201 is a well-built laptop with a solid feel. It has a plain black matte plastic exterior while the inside consists of a black keyboard and silver finishing. It has a 12.1 inch screen which disappointed us. Not only is the screen very dull, but the brightness is uneven leading to faint white splotches on the screen. It has a number of ports for connectivity including one for HDMI and 3 for USBs and it also sports a DVD combo drive. Among its other features are a fingerprint scanner, draft-N wireless support and a button for switching on Wi-Fi. A 2MP integrated webcam is located at the top of the screen. Its keyboard is nothing to write home about and we felt that the PR201’s touchpad was a little too small for convenience.

At 2.1 kilograms, the PR201 packs a few extra pounds for an ultraportable device. However, its portability factor is increased thanks to a frugal appetite for power and a good battery which lasted for all of 306 minutes in our tests. Under its hood, the PR201 has a 2.2-GHz Core2Duo P8400 processor coupled with 2GB of RAM and a 250GB hard disk. Thanks to these, the PR201 came up with a good performance. In World Bench 6, the laptop scored 88 marks while in Cinebench’s CPU test it scored 4674 points, lagging behind only the Asus U6S. It managed 18 FPS in both our gaming benchmarks. Its speakers were of good quality and produced clear, albeit low, music.

The MSI PR201 is priced at Rs. 52,000 which is a great price. However, the low price-tag is not enough to make this laptop truly shine and cover up some of its flaws including a poor display and not-so light build.

Apple MacBook: PCW RATING 78/100

Apple’s MacBook is quite clearly the best looking laptop in our comparison. Its overall design is aesthetically pleasing and its silver aluminum body, carved out from a single block of metal, gives the laptop a sleek figure. Its 13.3 inch screen, although not as bright as the Samsung’s, is vivid and quite pleasing to look at. However, the MacBook does compromise on its connectivity by only sporting a few ports, all on its left side (although we have to admit, the SPDIF audio port is a cool addition). Adding to the design quotient is a slot-loading DVD combo drive and an almost invisible 1.3 megapixel integrated camera. Typing on the MacBook is helped by its keyboard that features chiclet keys and navigation is aided thanks to the unique touchpad, which does not need any additional buttons and also acts as a click-pad.

In spite of its sleek design, the MacBook leaves a lot wanting as an ultraportable device. Not helping things are its 2.1 kilograms frame and a relatively weak battery which our tests maxed out at 183 minutes. Even the MacBook’s performance was very middle of the road despite its 2-GHz Core2Duo P7350 processor, 2GB of RAM and 160GB hard disk. In the World Bench 6 tests, the MacBook scored 81 points, far from the best in our comparison. In PC Mark Vantage, the results were slightly better with the MacBook managing a score of 3194. However, thanks to its GeForce 9400M graphics chip, the MacBook proved the best gaming machine in the comparison by scoring high FPS in both F.E.A.R. and Doom3. It also gave a good audio performance.

The Apple MacBook is priced at Rs. 72,910 and if you are looking for a decent laptop which makes a huge style statement, this is a good choice. On the other hand, a weak battery and its bulk do not make it an ideal ultraportable.

Asus U6S: PCW RATING 77/100

At first glance the Asus U6S looks like a proper business machine. With its silver keyboard and bezel and a glossy black exterior, the laptop comes across as a classy product. However, what spoilt it for us some what was the brown faux leather that surrounds the touchpad. Some users may find it a refreshing break from plastic but we thought it was a little too reminiscent of the 80’s. The Asus’ 12.1 inch screen is nothing special and in fact a little too dull. The Asus offers a lot of connectivity ports (including an HDMI port) but those on the left side seem cramped. The laptop also sports a DVD combo drive and a 0.3 megapixel web camera.

Asus’ chances as the perfect ultraportable laptop are hurt by its weight (1.8 kilograms) and its very weak battery that just lasted 165 minutes in our tests. The U6S is a great performer though, and as is evinced by its World Bench 6 score of 93 and a Cinebench score of 4946, both of which were the highest in the comparison.

The Asus U6S is priced at Rs. 92,900, and at that price the laptop should have offered more in a better fashion.

Acer TravelMate 6292: PCW RATING 75/100

Acer’s TravelMate 6292 is the cheapest ultra-portable laptop in our comparison but in relation to the other laptops; it fell behind on a number of fronts. The Acer’s design is nothing special and in fact it looks chunky for an ultraportable. It is also on the heavier side of the comparison table at 2.1 kilograms and its battery also lasted a mere 186 minutes during our tests. Its 12.1 inch screen is also nothing great and other laptops have better screens. The Acer has a decent number of connectivity ports but as we have seen in other Acer laptops, putting a two USB ports on top of one another means only one large USB connector can be used at a time. The Acer does offer an inbuilt DVD combo drive though.

The Acer is powered by a 2.2GHz Core2Duo T7500 processor, 2GB of RAM and a 160GB hard disk. With scores of 84 in World Bench 6 and 3157 in PC Mark Vantage, the Acer was not the weakest performer in our comparison but it certainly wasn’t the strongest either. At the end of the day even a great price-tag of Rs. 45,000 is not enough to keep Acer from the bottom of our comparison.