Introducing the Ultrabook Contenders

When Intel initially put out the idea of the ultrabook as a new type of laptop, I admit harboring plenty of skepticism—isn’t the ultrabook just a gussied up rebranding of an ultraportable? Unfortunately, being a skeptic/cynic  has served me well over the years, and so now here I sit in front of two ultrabooks trying to determine a couple of things: which ultrabook is the “best” right now, and are any of them actually worth buying. The first question may be a bit easier to answer, but the second….

I hinted at this in our Holiday 2011 Mobile Buyer’s Guide, but if you’re in the market for a good ultrabook, you could do a lot worse than to go out and grab a MacBook Air and call it a day. If you don’t like OS X and are happier running Windows 7, the MBA can of course run Windows as well, and it still probably rates higher than several of the ultrabooks floating around right now. Yes, the MBA will cost more for similar specs, but what the specs often don’t tell you is how laptops compare in the more subjective areas like build quality, keyboard quality, and display quality. That said, we still have these two ultrabooks to review, so let’s where they compete and where they fall short.

In the one corner we have Acer’s Aspire S3, with a 256GB SSD and an i7-2637M processor (1.7GHz base with Turbo up to 2.8GHz). Pricing on the S3-951-6432 we have in hand starts at $1230 online (down from the $1300 MSRP—and we’ve seen it as low as $1200 during the past few weeks). The base model S3-951-6646 on the other hand can be had for just $875 online (down from the $900 MSRP; we’ve seen t as low as $850). The entry-level model is different in a couple key areas from what I’m reviewing; first, it has a lower spec i5-2467M processor (1.6GHz base with Turbo up to 2.3GHz), and second it uses a hybrid HDD + SSD arrangement for storage. It’s that second item that worries me more, as the main HDD is a 5400RPM 320GB model and the SSD is a small 20GB unit. What’s more, the SSD isn’t used for any form of caching as far as I can determine (Intel’s Smart Response Technology requires the Z68 chipset), so it’s really just there to act as a swap file and a hibernation file repository. We’ll get to the full specs in a moment, but let’s introduce the other contender first.

In the other corner we have the ASUS UX31E, the big brother to the UX21E that we reviewed as our first ultrabook encounter. ASUS also sent us their higher end UX31E-DH72 model, sporting a 256GB SSD and an i7-2677M processor (a 100MHz clock speed increase over the previous model i7-2637M). The base model UX31E-DH52 has a 128GB SSD and an i5-2557M CPU for around $1100, sometimes less. Intel originally set a target price of $1000 or less for the base model of any ultrabook, but this seems to be a pretty loose definition as we can’t find a $1000 UX31E right now. The UX31E-DH72 we’re reviewing tips the scales at a rather hefty $1399 (MSRP and online price).

The market for ultrabooks has also expanded to include a few other laptops, like the Samsung Series 9. We’ve seen that in person, and the one area where it’s clearly better is contrast ratio on the LCD—and a matte LCD as well. We haven’t been able to test it yet, but we should have that one soon enough. Performance of the base model with an i3 ULV processor will certainly be lower than what we’re testing with the Acer S3 and ASUS UX31E, but we saw the upgraded NP900X3A-A02US model with i5-2537M and a 128GB SSD going for as little as $999 last week; sadly, the price is now back up to $1430, which isn’t nearly so interesting. It’s one to keep an eye out for, though, as $999 is a massive discount compared to where the Series 9 launched and that particular model has pretty good specs.

Both the Acer and ASUS offerings are 13.3” ultrabooks, which puts them in the same family as the Toshiba Portege Z835 and the MacBook Air 13, so that gives us five potential ultrabook-like devices to discuss (seven if we include the UX21E and MBA 11). How do all these ultrabooks compare to each other, and can one of them rise to the top? Not surprisingly, the answer to that question is rather complex and will ultimately distill down to what you value most in a laptop. We have examples of longer battery life, better displays, higher resolutions, larger and/or faster SSDs, and faster CPUs. There’s also the keyboard, build quality, and overall design to consider. Let’s give the rundown of the Acer and ASUS ultrabooks before we hit the benchmarks, and then we’ll wrap up with some thoughts on the ultrabook market as a whole.

Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook


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  • icrf - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    I think the problem is thin laptops are designed to be portable, and 17" laptops of any thickness aren't nearly as portable. If you have a bag/case big enough for a 17" chassis there is usually plenty of room for something much thicker than an inch.

    Lighter weight, however, is good pretty much everywhere.
  • Sufo - Friday, December 23, 2011 - link

    Well there's always the razer blade... lol Reply
  • JojoKracko - Thursday, March 15, 2012 - link

    Yes, I'd also like a 15 or 17 inch ultrabook. But it would have to have a better screen than these come with.

    Fortunately there is some hope that the manufacturers are coming to their senses. The UX31A will have a 1080P Matte IPS screen.

    Now just create a 17 inch version with a numeric keypad (full width zero key please) and I'll be happy.
  • popej - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Thanks for review!

    Some doubts:
    - Does contrast measurements include ambient light reflection? If not, results could be far form real life experience. I'm afraid that flowed test leads to flowed design, where manufactures try to get best tests results instead of best usefulness.
    - Are battery life test comparable between units? I have doubts about Internet test. One of the tricks that Asus is using is to reduce CPU speed when on battery. This way battery last more but quality of work is reduced. I would prefer a test, where amount of work done is measured, not only time.
    - Can this notebooks be comfortably used outdoor? I would expect this possibility from a ultra portable device. But none of your test gives a clear answer.
  • Kepe - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Jarred mentions twice in this article that the Asus unit can be used outside thanks to its bright display. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    The ambient light will affect the perceived brightness from the display (brighter environment means you'll want the LCD backlight turned up), and perceived contrast with reflections will also be affected. For the test, we place a colorimeter on the display and measure the white level and black level; divide the two and that's your contrast. I'm not sure what would be flawed with that approach, though in practical use other variables (that can't really be tested) come into play.

    The battery life tests are all performed at equivalent settings. That means Power Saver profile (or Power4Gear Maximum Battery on the ASUS). Then we make sure maximum CPU speed is set to 100% while minimum speed is 5%. The displays are also calibrated to the same ~100 nits brightness, and we run a loop where the web pages are loaded every 60 seconds in a repeatable manner. For most Internet surfing, this is far more important than quantity of work completed -- you read a web page that loads in a couple seconds; rarely do you actually run a continuous load for surfing, particularly on a laptop that's running off its battery.

    On the other end of the spectrum, the H.264 playback is a continuous load of video decoding, so your real-world battery life will generally be more than that and less than the idle, but where you fall naturally depends on what you're doing.
  • popej - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Colorimeter measurements would be equivalent of using notebook in a dark room, where anti-glare coating has no relevance. I think that easy way to check practical contrast could be done with digital photography using picture raw data for analysis.

    I don't know Power4Gear but quick search in net indicate, that "Maximim battery" could mean underclocking CPU, thus no 100% speed. So there is no superior efficiency but simply different settings.
  • twotwotwo - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    I'm with papaj on ambient light. You can't tell exactly what conditions users will work in, but these numbers are based on _zero_ ambient light, not the most common use case (though it is a real use case, e.g., watching a movie in a dark room). And it makes black levels very important to the contrast ratio and anti-glare not important at all.

    I get that it's kind of hard to factor reflections in and, frankly, you guys already do a ton of tests on a ton of systems. Also, initially you wouldn't have lots of other recent devices' numbers for comparison as you do for ambient-light-free contrast numbers. I didn't even know until today (via a DisplayMate comparison) that the reflection strength was something that was measured or that it varied so widely, but knowing it, I'm pretty curious about "real," everyday contrast numbers.

    Some kind of "indoor contrast ratio" figure would be interesting, using black and white levels on the current colorimeter figures + (reflection strength * a standard assumed level of light indoors). Even bare reflection strength numbers would be interesting, as I'm sure readers vary in what they think about display shininess. :)
  • twotwotwo - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Whoof, just peeked at the VESA standards for measuring reflectance. I'm amazed that anyone does any of those tests now. Reply
  • QChronoD - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    I would like to see the contrast ratio of the Asus measured when its at ~100 nits as well. The 500 nits would be useful if one wanted to use the laptop outside, but I would guess that the vast majority of the time it would be used indoors. Would it be possible to measure the Asus' screen at the standard brightness? If nothing else, the black levels wouldn't be washed out, and it would probably look better. Reply

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