Ultrabook Buying Tips

Posted on 17 October 2011 By


Buying an Ultrabook isn’t going to be simple. Not only do the products all look similar but the internals are similar too. How do you make a choice between an Lenovo Core i5 Ultrabook that looks the same as a Toshiba Core i5 Ultrabook that costs the same? The devil, unfortunately for the consumer, is in the details so to make the process a little easier I’ve listed some hints and tips here that you might want to think about before buying. I’ll update it as often as I can and will add in important tips from anyone that comments below.

toshiba-portege-z830-ultrabook_11Samsung Series 9 UltrabookASUS-UX21-Series-side-angle

Last update: 25th June 2012

Processing Performance

There isn’t much difference between the  Core i5 and Core i7 mobile CPUs apart from nominal and Turbo clock-speed but beware of the Core i3 which does not have the ‘Turbo’ feature that overclocks the CPU when possible. This is useful for speeding up web browsing and other bursty activities.

Since June 2012 the newest version of the Intel Core CPUs is available. The ‘Ivy Bridge’ platform offers slightly increased clock speeds across the board and and important upgrade to the GPU performance that has resulted in nearly double the 3D performance. This is something that could be important to those who wish to do occasional gaming. The Ivy Bridge platform also brings an on-board USB3.0 controller. All Ultrabooks with the Ivy Bridge platform will come with USB3.0

Intel Quick Sync Video (hardware video decode and encode) is available on all platforms and core Wireless-Display support although that requires a Wi-Di capable Wi-Fi card – generally an Intel Centrino card – an an adaptor for your display.

Disk

Disk sizes are based on unformatted total capacity, not user storage space. A 64GB drive could potentially have a 10GB windows build and recovery partition leaving around 40GB of space. Assume the worst and consider the usable space to be 20GB less than the disk size shown in the specifications.

SSD performance can vary wildly – there are some terrible SSD controllers out there – so look for a 4KB read-write test. It’s an important measure of how the SSD handles fast writes of small sizes – typical of many usage scenarios. A figure over 10MB/s is OK. Fastest read speeds should be over 200MB/s. The best we’ve seen to date is 500MB/s using a SATA III controller although as speeds go over 300MB/s there are limited practical advantages to these raw, theoretical figures.

Hybrid Hard Drives are not as fast in all scenarios as SSDs, are not as rugged, as quite or as efficient. They also vary in type and quality. Low-end versions simply use an SSD cache for hibernation activity. Others use third-party softawere like ‘ExpressCache to improve boot speed and the speed of access of commonly used programs.

Ports and Connectors

The number, type and connector size varies greatly so be careful to choose a device with the ports you need. Some devices list ‘VGA’ or ‘LAN’ when they provide a USB adaptor for a non-native solution. Other devices use micro-sized ports that need a port adaptor for normal connectors.  Some 2011/2012 Ultrabooks don’t come with USB3.0 although all ‘Ivy Bridge’ device will come with USB3.0

I’ve seen specifications that list ports that are not built-in. Rather, these are provided by adaptors. In the example of the ASUS UX31 this adds 100-200gm to the overall weight of the device. It’s a trick that you need to be aware of.

USB3.0 with sleep-n-charge can provide a higher power output than USB2.0

Battery Life

The rule of thumb is to use 2/3rds of the manufacturers battery life figures. The figures given by manufacturers are near idle, low-screen brightness figures. The usefulness of quick-charging capability can not be underestimated. Make sure the power brick isn’t a heavy unit.

Battery life on Ultrabooks can go from over 10hrs (idle, wifi-0ff, screen low brightness) to under 2hrs (in gaming scnearios) Nearly all 2011 and 2012 Ultrabook use between 7 and 10W of power under web scenarios and given the battery capacity, you can roughty work out the web-based battery life. E.G. with a 60Wh battery, the battery life would be between 6 and 8.5hrs.

Larger screen sizes can take a lot of battery life when used with high brightness settings. E.g. a 15″ screen on high brightness settings can reduce battery life by 30%.

Some Ultrabooks have a quick-charge feature.

Don’t compare battery sizes on mAh figures. look for Wh figures.

Screens

A matt screen will help reduce sharp reflections outdoors (in most cases – in some cases it can scatter light in an awkward way) and a glossy screen will look sharper indoors. Remember you can add a matt layer to a glossy screen but you can’t make a matt screen glossy.

With the introduction of thin-bezel screens it means you can get a larger screen in the same casing size. In some cases there are devices with 15″ screens in the casing size of a traditional 14″ laptop.

IPS screens and full HD screens are being introduced in 2012. IPS is a wide-viewing angle display. Full HD (1920×1080) requires font sizes on Windows to be increased which can affect layouts on some programs. This layout issue is likely to be fixed with Windows 8.

Casing

Metal casings look stunning when new but can scratch easily so check for a case (and the weight of it if you want to have a lightweight solution)

Upgrades

Don’t expect to be able to upgrade memory, battery or disk on Ultrabooks. Due to the design and manufacturing used to reach these slim builds, everything is fixed, soldered or sealed. There are some Ultrabooks that break these rules though. We’ve seen access panels that allow quick access to the memory slot and hard drive (E.G. Samsung Series 5) and other Ultrabooks that have rear casings that a re relatively easy to remove. In the latter case this may void a warranty. Some Ultrabooks do come with replaceable batteries.

Options

There are some key Ultrabook features that are listed in our features guide but I’ve added some general laptop features to the list below.

Look out for these options when assessing a device:

  • Wireless Display – Intel’s 1080p ‘Wi-Di’ technology requires an adapter and a compatible Wireless card.
  • Smart Connect – Update while sleeping is available on some 2012 Ultrabooks.
  • Sleep ‘n ‘Charge – Charge devices over USB when the Ultrabook is off. Available on most Ultrabooks
  • Quick charge – Fast charge battery of Ultrabook. Seen on the Lenovo U300s
  • IPS display – Wide angle viewing screen
  • Silent Mode – Fan-off mode
  • Enhanced Stereo Speakers
  • ‘HS’ capability with the Bluetooth standard uses Wifi for high-speed transfers.
  • Cases – Protect metal casings from scratches.
  • Lockable trackpad – Large trackpads can get in the way when gaming or writing large amounts of text
  • 3G / 4G data
  • Back-lit Keyboard
  • Microphone array (for noise canceling while on video calls)
  • Separate headphone out / Mic in (for some headsets that have two connectors)

Where we have the correct information it’s always added to our product pages along with links to reviews and images. Here’s the current list of Ultrabooks for further research.

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  1. #1 by Anonymous on October 18, 2011 - 11:42

    Thanks for the informative list!

  2. #2 by Dan Brown on October 18, 2011 - 12:40

    Great reference guide! Thanks. I wonder also, for us in the US, where is the best place to make the purchase? Amazon, Newegg… directly from the manuf?

    • #3 by Chippy on October 18, 2011 - 13:39

      A reputable online retailer would be my personal choice.

  3. #4 by Dan on October 18, 2011 - 18:49

    Thank you!
    Any of the ultabooks comes with a sim card slot (to save the need for external hsdpa modem)?

    • #5 by Chippy on October 18, 2011 - 19:07

      I understand that the Toshiba z830 will come in a (expensice) Portege version with hsdpa. I haven’t heard about 3g options on other devices.

  4. #6 by Everett on October 19, 2011 - 02:10

    RE SSD speeds, you said 500Mbps was the highest you have seen. I see from the specs posted at AnandTech that the ASUS come with 128GB 6Gbps SSD. Does this mean that the SSD has a 6 GB per sec transfer rate? What am I missing? (I am newbie, as if you couldn’t tell!)

    • #7 by Dan Brown on October 19, 2011 - 02:15

      The 500Mbps is referring to the actual read speed of data on the drive… 6Gbps is the SATA controller speed from the motherboard to the drive itself. There’s also write speed, to add a third variable… it’s confusing stuff!

    • #8 by Anonymous on October 24, 2011 - 19:30

      On SATA’s specifications, the 6Gbps is 6 GigaBITS per second. 500MBps for disk speeds are MegaBYTES per second. Notice the small b and the capitalized B, the former is bits and latter is bytes.

      8 bits=1 byte

      500MBytes = 4Gbits

      However, on SATA, its 10 to 1 ratio for bits and bytes. 6Gbps on SATA is 600MBps. So pretty close to 500MBps the latest SSDs offer.

  5. #9 by Conor Ryan on October 19, 2011 - 02:11

    Newegg has new stock of the higher end UX31 and lower end UX21! Go check.

  6. #10 by Joey on October 25, 2011 - 08:44

    Informative! Keep me updated!

  7. #11 by Ike on September 4, 2012 - 16:39

    Due to my workplace network I need a device that has 5GHz WiFi. The Toshiba Z930 has this but is relatively expensive. Do you know of any other ultrabooks/thins with this WiFi?

  8. #12 by Michele on January 4, 2013 - 04:10

    I have been researching ultrabook options to use to create artwork. I am not very educated on all the technical ends. When it comes to the new touchscreens I am lost. I have watched several of your youtube’s on them. I have narrowed it down to 2 that fit most of my wants. Either Dell 15Z with i7 Touchscreen (wishing it was a convertable) or the lenovo Yoga (wished the screen was larger) Is there any you think would work better or another option??

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