Five Ultrabooks to Look Out For

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The term Ultrabook is everywhere these days as more and more consumers demand that their electronics be smaller, lighter and more efficient. The Ultrabook category is no exception—manufacturers strive to keep Ultrabooks under 3 pounds and under 1” thick when closed. Typically, you’ll see no optical drive, RAM configurations at less than 8GBs and a new shift from hard drives to solid state drives. We take a look at the Dell XPS 13-7000sLV, ASUS UX31A-DB51 Zenbook Prime, the Acer TimelineU M5-481T-6670 , Acer TimelineU M5-581T-6490 and Acer Aspire S3-391-6899.

Display

Just because an Ultrabook is small and light doesn’t mean that you’re limited in screen size. The Aspire TimelineU M5-581T shows off a hefty 15.6” HD widescreen CineCrystal backlit-LED display with a resolution of 1366 x 768. There is very little border around  the screen—it goes edge-to-edge to give you more screen while maintaining the Ultrabook’s slim profile. The Aspire M5-481T uses the same display, but is only 14” for even greater mobility. The Aspire S3 has a similar setup, but features a 13.3” HD widescreen CineCrystal backlit-LED display with a resolution of 1366 x 768.

The Dell XPS13 display also uses edge-to-edge glass so that you get a borderless 13.3” screen in a compact 11” form factor. It is a 13.3” Truelife WLED HD display with a native resolution of 1366 x 768—the same resolution as the M5 series.

The ASUS Zenbook UX31A muscles ahead of the pack with its 13.3” display. Not only is it Full HD with 1920 x 1080 resolution, it uses IPS (in-plane switching) technology, the same as that used on iPads and some ASUS tablets. IPS reduces glare and substantially increases viewing in moderate-to-bright lighting conditions (outdoors, for example) and offers a better 178-degree viewing angle and less distortion.

WINNER: ASUS Zenbook

Processor

All of those good looks won’t go anywhere without a processor to carry them, and in this area there are distinct differences between the Ultrabooks featured here. The TimelineU M5-481T houses an Intel Core i3-2377M processor, which is not a workhorse, but definitely no slouch. The Aspire S3 also houses an Intel Core i3-2377M processor at 1.5 GHz, making the two similar in processing power and speed. The Aspire M5-581T comes out ahead with an Intel Core i5-3317U processor at 1.7 GHz, also with a 3MB L3 cache.

The Dell XPS 13 is equipped with an Intel Core i5-2467M processor, but it clocks in at a marginally reduced 1.6 GHz with a 3MB cache. Again, processor speed depends on many factors—system configuration, processing requirements, what you use the laptop for—so this minor fluctuation in clock speed between these two Core i5 processors is a non-issue. Clock speeds can also be boosted with Intel’s Turbo Boost, and over-clocking your system, while risky, could give you additional increases in processing speed. The XPS 13 can reach up to 2.3 GHz and the M5-581T can reach between 2.4 and 2.6 GHz.

The ASUS Zenbook UX31A uses an Intel Core i5-3317U processor with 3MB cache, similar to the Dell XPS 13. The i5-3317 is a newer Ivy Bridge processor, which is built for performance, and as such, it can be boosted to speeds between 2.4 and 2.6 GHz.

WINNER: TIE – ASUS Zenbook UX31A and Aspire M5-581T

Memory

Memory is the key to multitasking on a laptop. More memory ensures better performance and speed. But Ultrabooks don’t like to load up on memory, and these are no exception. The Aspire M5-481T and M5-581T are available with 6GB of RAM. The Aspire S3, Dell XPS 13 and ASUS UX31A are all equipped with 4GB RAM.

WINNER: The Acer Aspire TimelineU M5- 481T. More RAM is always better and it also means you’ll see better performance when multitasking.

Graphics

Because of the limiting form factor of Ultrabooks, almost all will favor integrated Intel HD graphics over discrete chips like the nVIDIA 630m or AMD 7670M chips. Although the Intel HD chips are good enough for everyday use, they are by no means gaming-performance cards.

The Aspire 481T uses integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics with 128MB of dedicated RAM, while the 581T uses Intel HD 4000 with 128MB of dedicated RAM. The Aspire S3 uses Intel HD 3000, as does the Dell XPS 13. The ASUS UX31A uses Intel HD 4000.

WINNER: The Aspire TimelineU M5-581T with Intel HD 4000 graphics and 128MB of dedicated memory gives it a slight edge over the others.

Storage

Having a hefty hard drive adds weight to an Ultrabook, and most models shun the traditional spindle drives for solid-state drives (SSDs), which are faster, slimmer and have no moving parts, which makes them less prone to failure.

The TimelineUltra M5-481T and M5-581T both come with dual drives—a 500GB 5400 RPM spindle drive and a 20GB SSD (used mainly to cache programs that you use consistently). The Aspire S3 is similarly equipped with both a hard drive and SSD. The XPS 13 is equipped with a 256GB SSD, while the Asus UX31A has a 128GB SSD.

WINNER: The idea of dual drives is appealing. You can use one for storage and one for speedand although it does add some weight to the unit, the TimelineUltra M5-481T wins this one.

Extras

Extras on an Ultrabook? Savvy Ultrabook enthusiasts look for extras like HDMI inputs and outputs, USB 3.0 ports, card readers (most Ultrabooks have nixed the optical drives these days—but not all), webcams and sound.

Surprisingly, the TimelineUltra M5-481T and 581T both still contain an optical drive (8x SuperMulti Double Layer DVD drive) and also include dual USB 3.0 ports, a multi-card reader (the M5-481T supports SD and MMC cards, while the M5-581T supports SDXC, SDHC, SD and MMC cards), Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, two built-in speakers with Dolby Home Theater enhancements, an HDMI port and a 1.3MP HD webcam (1280 x 1024). The Aspire S3 offers the same (with a SD/MMC card reader and no optical drive).

The Dell XPS provides a single USB 3.0 port, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, two built-in speakers with Waves Maxx Audio 4, a mini DisplayPort and a 1.3MP webcam with dual array microphones.

The ASUS UX31A has two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, two built in speakers that feature Bang and Olufsen ICEpower technology, an HDMI port and a 720p HD webcam.

WINNER: Do you need an optical drive? If you do, the winner is the TimelineUltra M5-481T.

Battery Life

Battery life is important. It means the difference between a layover where you do nothing and a project getting completed in your spare time. The problem is that battery life and battery life specs are totally reliant on your usage details. Do you have the brightness cranked to Blinding? Do you have three USB peripherals running at once? Do you leave Wi-Fi searching enabled? Here’s the rundown on the battery specs from the manufacturers:

Acer TimelineU 481T 8 hours
Acer TimelineU 581T 8 hours
Acer Aspire S3 5.5 hours
Dell XPS 13 8.88 hours
ASUS UX31A 6.5 hours

WINNER: Battery kudos go to the Dell XPS 13, with almost 9 hours of battery life.

Keyboards and Input Devices

Believe it or not, a good, well-spaced keyboard is not only essential to your comfort, but to the life of the laptop. Nobody buys a laptop with a terrible keyboard, and no one keeps a laptop that is uncomfortable to use.

The Timeline M5-481T, M5-581T and Aspire S3 all have backlit standard size notebook keyboards with numeric keypads and touchpads with multi-gesture control features like Flip, Rotate, Pinch and Two-Finger Scrolling.

The Dell XPS 13 includes a standard full size, spill-resistant backlit chiclet keyboard with a glass integrated button touchpad with multi-gesture support.

The ASUS UX31A features a 286mm frameless backlit chiclet keyboard and a mutli-gesture touchpad.

WINNER: The spacing, ergonomics and feel of the keys are so similar that there is no clear winner in this category.

Portability

Why are we even talking about Ultrabooks? Because this new category of portable computers will have a significant impact on consumer sales of PC products this holiday season. When someone puts an Ultrabook on their holiday or birthday wish list, you want to remember: weight, width and wow factor. A true Ultrabook is light, thin and powerful.

The TimelineUltra 481T weighs a hefty 4.3 lb, but does come in under 1” thick (0.8” to be exact). That extra weight can be attributed to the 500GB spindle hard drive and 8x DVD drive, which were not sacrificed to meet the weight requirement. The Timeline 581T is even heavier at 5.07 lb, but still remains at 0.8” thick when closed. The added weight can also be blamed on the 15.6” screen size. The Acer Aspire S3 weighs 3 lb and just 0.7” thin. The Dell XPS 13 meets the height requirement with a 0.71” height and meets its weight class at 2.99 lb. The ASUS UX31A also comes in under an inch (0.71”) and weighs 2.86 lb.

And the winner is…

With such a rich complement of Ultrabooks to choose from, and such a wide assortment on its way, you can pick and choose from any of these models and still come out the winner. But if your choice is based on overall extras, the winner is the loaded TimelineUltra M481T, with a 14” screen, dual hard drives and optical drive. The TimelineUltra M5-481T bridges old-school functionality and Ultrabook portability.