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Scott's Column
More Ultrabooks

March 1, 2012
By Scott Lewis

I know you are getting tired of this... but there is more in the Ultrabook saga... which will continue until I buy one.

Next month I have good printer story, but the story is not done unfolding, so it can't be written yet.

On with the Ultrabooks.

Some of the second generation Ultrabooks are starting to appear. To give a quick recap... the first generation of Ultrabooks included:

Toshiba Z835 (Core i3, 4 GB, 128 GB SSD, 2.5 lbs., $799)
Lenovo U300s (Core i5, 4 GB, 128 GB SSD, 2.9 lbs., $1049)
Acer Aspire S3 (Core i5, 4 GB, 20/320 SSD/HDD, 3.0 lbs., $799)
Asus UX31 (Core i5, 4 GB, 128 GB SSD, 2.9 lbs., $1099)

Of these first 4 Ultrabooks, three come with a 1366 x 768 display, with the exception of the Asus UX31 which has a 1600 x 900 display. You could also consider the first generation Samsung Series 9 in this list... but it is not technically an Ultrabook since it does not have Intel's second generation Core i Series processor (Sandy Bridge).

This month I cover a few second generation Ultrabooks. These are still based on Intel's second gen CPU, so expect a third generation of Ultrabooks later in the year when Intel reveals its 3rd generation Core i Series chips (Ivy Bridge).

Remember... the benchmark for all these Ultrabooks (said or not said) is the MacBook Air. I still find it amazing how some review sites question Intel's pushing of this Ultrabook spec... while those same sites praise the MacBook Air. Are they so close minded that they assume everyone is just going to do web surfing, email and social networking. Don't they realize there are tens of millions (maybe hundreds of millions) of us Windows users that have a library of Windows software that we like and want to use on a nice new machine. A machine that is as sleek and cool as a MacBook Air... but runs Windows natively... and has proper support for Windows features (Windows, Alt, Ctrl key; Sleep & Resume; etc.)

I will get off my soapbox. I really like the MacBook Air, but find its keyboard to be lacking. And the fact it does not have dedicated Page Up, Page Down, Home and End keys is a deal breaker for me.

I am looking for an Ultrabook. Personally... I really want a 1600 x 900 display. Having said that... if I had to buy one of the first generation machine listed above I would buy the Toshiba Z835. I have typed on it and it does give the best typing experience. The Asus gave me the worst typing experience, which trumps it high resolution screen... and higher price.

Let's see what we have now.

HP ENVY 14 Spectre ($1,399)

I really liked this one. The unique Gorilla Glass lid makes this laptop stand out in a crowd. Very cool. HP even gives us a 1600 x 900 screen, which is the only reason to go with a 14" screen in an Ultrabook. Unfortunately, this machine is just way too expensive. $1,400 is way too large a pill to swallow. I want to stay at $900-$1,000 myself. HP did a great job here, except for the cost. Like Dell's Adamo line... this will probably fail. I don't see people spend more than a MacBook Air in this category... at least not in volume. This is too much a niche product at this price. I would pay extra for the high resolution screen... but no more than $1,100.

HP Folio 13 ($899)

I have read a lot of good things about this laptop. But I have not touched one yet. It comes in at 3.2 lbs, which is close enough to 3 pounds that weight should not be a factor. It also has a backlit keyboard which the Toshiba Z835 lacks. This might be the most promising so far. But the screen resolution tells me I should wait... or get the Toshiba with its ultra light 2.5 lbs. Keep in mind my biggest issue with the Toshiba is its flexible construction... which is also part of how it is so light. The HP is supposed to be a very solid feeling machine without any of the Toshiba's flex.

Dell XPS 14z ($799)

Dell claims this is the thinnest "full featured" 14" Windows laptop with DVD drive. It is not an Ultrabook, so should we consider it? This is supposed to be a 14 inch screen in a 13 inch chassis. You can get this XPS model with discrete graphics, but you have to step up to at least $1,199. We won't be going there. At the $799 price you get 6 GB of memory (2 more than most Ultrabooks start with) and a 500 GB traditional spinning hard drive. You can forget about those 2-3 second resume times from sleep without a SSD (Solid State Drive).

As for its slot loading optical drive... I rarely put a disc in a machine after it is setup... and I could certainly install almost all my software from my network. So the optical drive is wasted on me. Ultimately... this laptop falls short in that it weighs 4.4 lbs... that is noticeable compared to 2.5 - 3.2 lbs for everything else I am considering. The biggest flaw with this laptop... and the reason I won't consider it... it did not give you a higher resolution with it 14" screen. You are still stuck with 1366 x 768... even for the $1,499 version. That's a mistake.

Dell XPS 13 ($999)

Having seen two reviews that almost mirrored each other... I can safely say that I like the Dell XPS 13. Unfortunately both reviews dinged the Dell on battery life. The reviews said that the Dell gave the worst battery life of any Ultrabook. I don't know how much of an issue that will be. I suppose I want to see how cumbersome the power brick is. My own battery expectations would be to play video for an entire trip to New York... in the planes and air ports without recharging.

The beauty of the XPS 13 is that it is a good deal smaller than other 13" Ultrabooks. It is smaller than the 13" MacBook Air. In fact, it is about halfway between a 13" and 11" MacBook Air. Dell managed this by using a much thinner bezel and going edge to edge with the Gorilla Glass display. So you get a 12.5" laptop with a 13.3" screen and a nice keyboard.

This might be the best compromise. If I can't get the screen resolution I want (14" @ 1600 x 900) then I might as well get a smaller overall size to hold a 13.3" screen at 1366 x 768. Weight is still at 3 lbs... so it does not beat the Toshiba in that department, but its aluminum and carbon fiber construction should be a lot closer to the HP Folio than the Toshiba in the solid feeling department.

One review said Dell might introduce a higher resolution model later. How much later? I need to know. And how much more will it cost?

Samsung - 14" Series 5 Ultrabook ($879)

This is the laptop that spurred this month's analysis. I saw this at best Buy and it started the bug again. I was in Best Buy getting replacement printer cartridges for my Epson Workforce 1100 (more next month). I saw a new Samsung Ultrabook. It was a 14" Series 5 laptop. Right off the bat I was disappointed. The screen is the standard 1366 x 768 screen. This is unacceptable in a 14" laptop. The only reason for me to go to a 14" screen is to get a higher resolution. The weight of the Series 5 is probably very good. I believe it is 3.9 lbs. However, sitting next to the Toshiba Z835 at 2.47 lbs. it seems heavy. I find the optical drive interesting at this weight... but I really see little reason for an optical drive these days. I rarely use them, and you can always buy an external drive if you can't find another way to load software. Finally, there is a 500 GB hard drive with a large 16GB cache to enable fast boot and resume times. I want an SSD for my storage.

I did spend some time typing on it. The space bar was pretty bad, but I am sure this was because it was an abused floor model. Overall the keyboard was as good as the Toshiba Z835, which means it is tied for the best keyboard. The cursor only jumped once while typing. I don't know if I accidentally touched the touchpad to cause this or if it was something else. But since it was only once... and it was an abused floor model I will forgive it this one indiscretion.

Lastly... there was no two finger scrolling. Nothing! I was able to get into the touchpad software and there was no place to set this up. I have to assume you can't do it, but maybe I just could not find the option. I read a review that praised its Multi-touch gestures... so this has to be me. Meanwhile I had no trouble showing my son the two finger scrolling 20 feet away on the MacBook Air.

The nail in the coffin for me... no backlit keyboard. Priced at $879 I have to say this isa really nice laptop. Just not the laptop for me.

Conclusion

If I had to buy now... it would be a toss up between the HP Folio 13 and the Toshiba Z835. The Dell XPS 13 is running a very close 3rd place. I would love to touch and feel the HP... maybe it is good enough that I don't need to wait.

That's it for this month. Windows 8 is out with a Customer Preview beta... and the Apple iPad 3 is due out next week. Both of those could influence my decision. I have seen some video of Windows 8 in action... and I like it. I could see holding out for a tablet running Windows 8... and can be placed in front of a keyboard and mouse to act as a low powered laptop. If it is fast enough for light Photoshop editing, and total software demos around the country... I could see getting one. I just don't think I can wait that long.

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