Ultrabook versus MacBook

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Serious players in the mobile computing field know what they want from their laptops—power, portability, and panache—but getting all three in one place is a little tougher than one would expect. Apple fans will tell you that the Cupertino-based retailer has been supplying all three in their MacBook Air models. It’s just 0.68/inch thin and weighs as little as 2.38 pounds, with an aluminum unibody that has made other laptop makers jealous enough to follow suit. But there are some users—and here comes the hate mail—who just don’t want to give in to Apple’s monopolistic operating system.

It’s a given that the MacBook Air handles photographic-image editing, video editing, and design programs fluidly and natively, with little glitching in the system. But for someone that was raised on Windows, the Mac OS can seem a little daunting and confusing. Also consider this: the mobile Windows 8 PC operating system, although not as intuitive when handling high-end graphics and imaging programs like Photoshop, still has improved by leaps and bounds over the first generation of MacBook Air. And although many will argue the merits of Mac over Windows, the fact is this:

Both Windows Ultrabooks and MacBook Air laptops use Intel® Core™ processors. So basically, they’re running the same engine, but with much different chassis.

For those looking to kick the tires on a new Ultrabook or MacBook Air, here’s a side-by-side comparison of the best of each class—what they can be used for, how they hold up under different situations, and what Ultrabook models compare to the MacBook Air standard.

The Shell

MacBook Air

The MacBook Air features a unibody aluminum design that screams “Look at me! I’m cool!” Compare that to a matte-finish standard notebook in some kitschy color like Ocean Blue, and you’ll see the difference immediately. Apple claims that the unibody design “means a higher precision, less complex design with fewer parts.” That’s like saying your car is much sharper and less complicated because it has no doors. It’s also a great big wagging finger of disapproval to those looking to open the machine up and peek inside or modify the machine.

The Contenders

A problem with making something so good is that everyone starts to copy it, and then pretty soon everything starts to look the same. Form frequently follows function, but in some cases, form overtakes a product and tends to cheapen itself. For instance, the minute you see an MP3 player that tries to hard to emulate the look of an iPod touch, you immediately suspect it can’t be as good, or otherwise it would be an iPod touch. But with Ultrabooks, emulating the look of a MacBook Air is a little less risky. It just has to be done right.

The KIRAbook line from Toshiba, which you will hear mentioned a few times in this article, comes the closest. It has a honeycombed interior construction that adds stability without adding additional weight. It’s made from the same unibody concept, and its slick metallic surface definitely validates the whole imitation-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery thing. This is about as close as you are going to get to the MacBook Air look. 

The Screen

MacBook Air

The 11-inch MacBook Air features a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels (so 2010; even Windows laptops are slowly moving away from this HD standard), while the 13-inch model comes correct with a resolution of 1440 x 900 pixels. Unfortunately, the MacBook Air big brother, the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, has a much higher resolution but it weighs almost two pounds more than the Air and costs quite a bit more. The MacBook Air does use a more powerful integrated graphics chip, the Intel HD Graphics 5000 chipset.

The Contenders

The upcoming ATIV Book 9 Plus from Samsung will boast one of the most brilliant screens currently available—3200 x 1800—and will also use the new Haswell chipset from Intel, which means the graphics will be powered by Intel HD 4400, a step up in graphics, but not an integrated video card good enough for high-level game play. But compared to the pedantic HD resolution of the MacBook Air, the screen on the ATIV Book 9 is definitely a showstopper.

The Storage

MacBook Air

The MacBook Air has a variety of storage options, from 128, 256, to 512GB of flash storage. It does not offer a native hard-drive option, although third-party and after-market options to install different hard drives are available (for older MacBook Air models). For high-end use, especially video, audio, and photography, you may want to invest in a more expansive external hard drive, or maybe a small NAS server.

The Contenders

It’s tough to get a traditional spindle into an Ultrabook and keep the weight and size down. It’s like putting your laptop on a diet but force-feeding it junk food. The Acer Aspire S7 comes in a configuration as high as 256GB of solid-state storage, but many PC Ultrabooks can have their storage modified (it’s risky—have someone that knows how to service your machine do it properly). Ultrabooks like the ASUS VivoBook S400CA still use a traditional hard drive (500GB) with a solid-state-drive (24GB) cache.

The Options

The MacBook Air

While both the MacBook Air and new Ultrabooks offer many of the same options (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, dual USB 3.0 ports, microSD slot, stereo speakers, and integrated dual microphones and webcam), there are some notable differences. The WI-Fi protocol includes 802.11 ac (the newest and fastest Wi-Fi speed), the microSD supports 64GB SDXC cards, and there’s a little thing called Thunderbolt (with transfer speeds up to 10Gb/s). And the keyboard is backlit, which isn’t true of all Ultrabooks.

The Contenders

Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and USB 3.0 ports—check. Integrated stereo speakers, webcam, and microphones—check. MicroSD card slot—check. So how does an Ultrabook compete? Capacitive multitouch touchscreens. Once you’ve used a touchscreen, you miss it when it’s gone. Windows 8 was built for touchscreens, and the added functionality that Windows 8 brings to the table is realized in a very intuitive way. Touchscreens, like the ones on the Sony VAIO Pro 13, let your fingers do the walking. MacBook Air restricts your walking to the trackpad.

The Speed

The MacBook Air

Processor speed between the MacBook Air and an Ultrabook really doesn’t differ, because they both use Intel Core chip technology. The MacBook Air uses either a 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 with a 3MB shared L3 cache that can be over-clocked to 2.6GHz, or a 1.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 with a 4MB shared L3 cache that can be over-clocked to 3.3GHz. They also now have models with Haswell Intel Core processors. Add to that 4 to 8MB of 1600MHz LPDDR3 onboard memory, and you’ll see some pretty impressive speed for multitasking, web surfing, or applications.

The Contenders

Take your pick: all Ultrabooks use next-generation Intel Core processors, everything from i3 to i7. Be careful when choosing; if you can afford it, try to buy a laptop with new Intel Core Haswell processors, which extend your battery life over last year’s processors. Also, Intel Core i3 Ultrabooks, although few, will never be as fast as Intel Core i5 or i7 models, so make sure you future-proof your purchase by getting the highest processor you can. Also, look for models with sufficient RAM (at least 4GB, powerful enough for 64-bit systems), or at least Ultrabooks where the RAM can be upgraded. Again, some models have the RAM soldered in, making it irreplaceable.

The Operating System

MacBook Air: Mac OSX

MacBook Air runs currently on the Mac OSX operating system, which is built on a UNIX foundation. It is the Ferarri of operating systems when it runs correctly. Although not victim to the virus and security flaws of Windows, Mac users still find some aspects of the OS to be faulty, with complaints mainly about syncing issues and battery-life problems and the lack of Windows-like applications, but they are few and far between. The new Mavericks OS may alleviate the aggravation. Mac users also tout the seamless integration of the operating system and the applications specific to Mac, like their mail program.

Ultrabooks: Windows 8

Windows 8 users on the other hand, love to complain about what Windows doesn’t do for them, although it is a far superior operating system than previous Windows versions. Yeah, that Start button is sorely missed (returning in Windows 8.1) but the touchscreen functionality built into Windows 8 is one of the reasons that touchscreen use on Ultrabooks is so endemic to the Windows experience now. Millions of dedicated users can’t be that fed up that they’d ditch their Ultrabooks over some minor cosmetic concerns. Security, on the other hand, will always be a concern for Windows users.

The Weight and Height

The MacBook Air

When it comes to light and portable, the MacBook Air sets the standard. The 11-inch model is 0.68/inch thin and only weighs 2.38 pounds, while the 13-inch model is also 0.68/inch thin and weighs 2.96 pounds. Less than three pounds and less than an inch thick when closed makes it hard for the competition to imitate.

The Contenders

Hard, but not impossible. Consider the ASUS Taichi. Even with dual screens, it weighs less than 3 pounds and is thinner than an inch when closed. You can also tote any of the Ultrabooks in the KIRAbook line without dislocating a shoulder. It comes in at 0.7/inch and just 2.66 pounds. But the real lightweight in this group, if you’re looking for true portability, is the Sony Vaio Pro 11. It measures 0.6/inch thick when closed, but only weighs 1.92 pounds. Carrying two of these (not that you ever would) is still not as heavy as carrying some loaded notebook computers.

So there you have it. The MacBook Air in one corner, spry, lightweight, ready for a fight. In the opposing corner, you have a variety of Ultrabooks, always looking to be the new champ, but happy just to be contenders for now. Who will win this knockout fight? As the technology progresses and the construction and materials used to create Ultrabooks continues to grow, we may still be left waiting for a champ to emerge.

For more information, stop by the B&H SuperStore in New York, speak with a sales professional on the telephone at 1-800-606-6969 or contact us online via Live Chat.

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you are supposed to compare apples to apples or at least apples to orange and not compare apples to fruit salad!!!

When you talk about Screen resolutions, you say, "Unfortunately, the MacBook Air big brother, the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, has a much higher resolution but it weighs almost two pounds more than the Air and costs quite a bit more. "

That's not a fair, apples-to-apples comparison as you appear to be comparing the 11" Air with the 13" Retina Pro. A fairer comparison would be with the 13" Air. I don't know where you get the "almost two pounds" from in any case.

11" Air: 2.38 lbs, $999 for 128 GB SSD, 4 GB RAM, and 1.3GHz i5.
13" Air: 2.96 lbs, $1099 for 128 GB SSD, 4GB RAM, and 1.3GHz i5.
13" MBP with Retina: 3.57 lbs, $1499 for 128 GB, 8 GB RAM, and 2.5 GHz i5

To upgrade to 8 GB RAM on either Air, you have to spend another $100.

For the 13"Air vs 13" rMBP, that brings the cost differential to $300 and 0.6 lbs for a much faster processor and 4x the display resolution. The 11" has a $400 and 1.2 lbs difference with the same processor differential and even more display difference.

Dear Reader,

You are right in pointing out that comparing the MacBook Air to the MacBook Pro may seem unfair, but when talking about the quality of the screen, we only mention that the MacBook Pro with Retina display is the next logical comparison because it has a better screen. If Apple decides to make a MacBook Air with a Retina display (which are rumored to be in the works), all bets are off. Also, according to Apple’s website, the 11-inch MacBook air is 2.38 pounds, while the 13” Retina Pro is only 3.57 pounds. We mistakenly quoted the weight 13-inch MacBook Pro without Retina display, which is 4.5 pounds.

Thanks again for your diligence.

Seems like you are cherry picking the best features from different ultrabook models, many of which are not currently available.

I appreciate an honest comparison and I do not believe that a mac is the right choice for everyone. But this article was written with a very clear bias for the windows machine. As an example; criticizing a great operating system because there are instances when people would like the battery to last longer is irresponsible. And please omit the snarky editorial comments in the future.

You're comparing computers when they are new.
How about reviewing them after the Windows registry starts on its bloatfest?
Windows computers have inevitable obsolescence by gradually getting slower as the registry grows fatter.