Ask LH: What Are Ultrabooks, And Do I Need One?

Dear Lifehacker, The 2012 Consumer Electronics Show just ended, and everyone's talking about these new laptops called ultrabooks. Are they any good? Who makes them? I'm in the market for a new laptop. Are they out yet, and should I buy one? Signed, Confused About All These *Books

Photo by Michael Sheehan.

Dear Confused,

You're absolutely right — the hot term in the laptop market right now is "ultrabook". The term is part marketing hype, and partially descriptive of a new generation of thin, light, powerful and design-focused laptops. Whether you should buy one and whether they're any good, however, all depends on what you plan to do with your laptop, when you're planning to buy, and how much you're willing to spend. Let's try and break down the category and clear the air.

What Exactly Are Ultrabooks?

"Ultrabooks" are a type of thin (20mm thick or less) and light laptop that are designed to offer a good counterpoint between high performance and low price. The phrase is trademarked by Intel, and the company is behind the push to make your next computer an ultrabook. Ultrabooks are also characterised by having low-power Intel Sandy Bridge processors inside, Intel integrated graphics, some have SSDs as their primary drives, and most feature design-focused exteriors. If any of that sounds a lot like the Macbook Air, it should — many analysts have pointed out that many ultrabooks are designed to emulate the Macbook Air in form-factor, weight and design, but also to compete with ARM-based tablets.

Even considering all of the specs, the term "ultrabook" is essentially a marketing term that describes a new class of Intel laptops that are designed to cost under $US1000 without sacrificing performance for the low price point. At the same time, the thin profile of the ultrabook class of laptops means that they have fewer ports and peripherals than many other larger, more expensive laptops. Don't expect DVD burners, multiple USB, HDMI and hard-wired Ethernet ports, or any of the other added ports that you may have come to expect on Windows laptops.

Photo by Michael Coté.

Who Are They Good For?

Right now, ultrabooks are designed for anyone who wants a thin, light, Windows laptop at a decent price. Some manufacturers have struggled to keep the price point for their ultrabooks under the $US1000 price point Intel has specified. If you're willing to sacrifice ports for portability, and if you're the type of person who's interested in the Macbook Air but want a fully fledged Windows laptop from a PC manufacturer, an ultrabook may be for you. Speaking of the Macbook Air, it's worth noting that Apple's thin and light laptop does allow you to run Windows and is at roughly the same price point.

However, if you want a few more ports, or different features, a different screen size or a different keyboard feel, the various ultrabooks available from Samsung, Asus, HP, Toshiba and Lenovo are definitely worth a look. At the same time however, thicker, heavier laptops with more ports, more features and the same hardware in a less design-focused package are available for around the same price. The decision of whether an ultrabook is right for you has less to do with what you're planning to do with the system and more whether or not you need the form factor that ultrabooks represent.

How Much Do They Cost?

The Intel-specified price point for ultrabooks is $US1000, although they range from $US900 to well over $US1200 depending on the specs and accessories. For example, the base price of the Acer Aspire 3951 is about $US900, but the Samsung Series 5 can be well over $US1100 to $US1400 depending on the model and screen size. If you're interested in purchasing an ultrabook, be ready to spend $US1500 for the highest end models, but average price is close to $US1000. Most manufacturers claim they're working to bring base prices down to below $US1000 by the end of 2012, and most analysts assert that by the end of the year, the term "Ultrabook" will be less of a descriptor of a specific class of laptops, and the vast majority of Windows laptops will have ultrabook qualities like low prices and attractive design.

Photo by Joseph Hunkins.

Are They Any Good?

Most of the Intel Sandy Bridge processors that come in the current generation of ultrabooks are fairly speedy, and the SSDs are solid performers as well. That said, the entire ultrabook category lives in an in-between space in laptop specs at the moment, with some solid components and others that are designed to save money on manufacturing costs. Most models ship with Intel integrated graphics, so don't expect to do any serious 3D gaming on your ultrabook, and most ship with 4GB of RAM, which is enough for most activities, but not enough if you plan to do video rendering or a ton of audio conversion. You'll also wind up with slightly slower hardware than is available in other, thicker or heavier laptop models.

That said, most ultrabooks on the market currently have mid-range specs. They're perfectly respectable laptops for most work, entertainment and multimedia purposes. If you spend your life on the web, an ultrabook offers a decent balance between price, portability and features, as long as you remember that they're mid-range systems — not desktop replacements or gaming systems.

The Verdict: Should I Buy One?

Ultrabooks are a good option if you don't need a heavily featured laptop and portability is important to you. If you travel frequently, and most of your work is either on the web, writing, doing research or other light tasks, or if you just want a light laptop you can take with you when you do travel, or if you wish PC laptops had some form to go with their function, an ultrabook is a decent buy. That said, if portability or design aren't important to you at all, you may be better off spending the same amount of money on a laptop with faster components and more features.

We would suggest waiting a bit — possibly through Q2 2012, to see how the class expands and which new models come to market in the coming months and how the prices change. There were a number of great models on display at CES 2012 and keep an eye on reviews of recently released models and try them out if you can get your hands on them at electronics stores near you. Newer models are on the way with faster processors, speedier components, larger screen sizes, and — with luck — lower prices. In the long term, the term "ultrabook" will — like most marketing terms — likely vanish, and all laptops will benefit from the design and portability lessons that PC manufacturers are learning now.

Photo by Intel Free Press.


Comments

    Really, we need to stop talking about technical specs and start talking only about usage. This article really does little to answer the question "and do I need one" (ignoring the fact that the questioner does not "need" one, but might "want" one).
    The problem with Ultrabooks is that it is a marketing term, not a classification, despite what Intel might like. Pale copies of the Apple's Air series do nothing. PC vendors need to rethink their whole "we need 60 different models" philosophy. The Air works well for Apple because it fits into a clearly defined model stream. Asus and Acer and the rest simply churn out model after model, cannibalising their own market. Is it any wonder customers are confused about what they should buy?
    Plus, they can't let go with this obsession with technical specs. They try to use them to differentiate themselves from the pack, but this has no effect on the majority of laptop buyers. Most of these just want to know "can I play this game, can I edit my home videos, etc.".

    Answer in one sentence:

    "Windows laptops that are like Macbook Airs". And don't jump on me about that, I'm not saying they're copying the Macbook Air. But that's basically the case, and the way I find it easiest to explain to people who ask. "It's like a Macbook air." Simple.

    I do wish Intel was a little more stringent in the requirements for being called an 'ultrabook' though. Seems they've made the definition a little wide.

    If you have to ask "Do I need one?" for a type of computer, then no. You'd be happy with a netbook, a laptop or a desktop if you don't need portability.

    I have my money set aside for two Lenovo Yoga's when they arrive ;-) one for me and one for the wife.

    I have just recently got one of the UX-31 for Uni, and it is brilliant! I've never liked laptops because of the bulkiness and the speed of most of them.

    But the sheer brilliance on how most ultrabooks are designed and of coarse SSD is crucial, it's really made me fall in love with my little Portable friend. Much rather it than a tablet etc, due to being a coder.

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