Ultrabooks vs MacBook Air: What Should You Buy?

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What started as a trickle has become a flood. Every PC maker now has at least one Ultrabook on the market, and many have two or more. By the time back-to-school season rolls around, you'll see many of these super-sleek laptops hitting shelves with much more aggressive prices. How aggressive? Try $600 less than the $1,299 MacBook Air. But what exactly is an Ultrabook and how do these notebooks stack up to Apple's first-class ultraportables?

What is an Ultrabook?

For the uninitiated, Ultrabook is a term Intel coined to describe ultraportable laptops that meet a certain set of guidelines. These machines are less than .8 inches thick and use either a solid state drive (or a cache of flash memory) to boot Windows fast and wake from sleep almost instantly. You should also expect at least 5 hours of battery life. The goal: to make notebooks as responsive as tablets--not to mention attempt to beat the Air at its own game.

Where Ultrabooks Beat the MacBook Air

They're Cheaper

While the 13-inch Air costs a somewhat steep $1,299, you can pick up an Ultrabook like the Toshiba Portege Z835 (pictured) for as little as $799. It's the lightest Ultrabook yet at just 2.4 pounds and lasts nearly 7 hours on a charge. It's Core i3 processor and 128GB solid state drive aren't as fast as the Air, but you get good performance for the money.

Other Ultrabooks, like the Asus Zenbook UX31 and Dell XPS 13, cost $999. These laptops step up to faster Core i5 processors and have sexier designs. Plus, thanks to Intel's Smart Connect technology inside the Dell, the Ultrabook can keep your email and social networking feed up to date even with the lid closed.

By this summer I expect to see a number of Ultrabooks in the $699 range, though they won't be equipped with solid state drives.

See Full ReviewsToshiba Portege Z835, Asus Zenbook UX31, Dell XPS 13

More Sizes, More Choices

There's no question that the sweet spot for Ultrabooks is 13 inches. This size laptop is small enough to take anywhere but big enough to be your primary PC. But not everyone shopping for an Ultrabook is a road warrior. Some people just want a bigger screen in a sleek design.

 The HP Envy 14 Spectre is particularly unique in that the lid and palmrest are made of scratch-resistant glass, while the Samsung Series 9 15-inch crams a high-resolution 1600 x 900 screen into a chassis that's less than 4 pounds. Or how about a 15-inch Ultrabook with discrete graphics like the Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3?

See Full ReviewsHP Envy 14 Spectre, Samsung Series 9 15-inch, Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3

Additional Port Options

While some Ultrabooks leave out important features like SD Card slots (Dell XPS 13, Lenovo IdeaPad U300), many of our top picks include more ports than the MacBook Air. For example, the HP Folio includes two USB 3.0 ports, a full-size HDMI port (no adapter required) and Ethernet for those users who demand it. The Portege Z835 goes a step further by including a VGA port, which will help business users connect to older projectors.

See Full ReviewHP Folio 13

Some Models Give You More Storage

One of the complaints people have about the MacBook Air and certain Ultrabooks is that you're limited to just 128GB of solid state storage in most cases out of the box. If you need more room for all your stuff consider an Ultrabook like the Samsung Series 5 Ultra. This 14-incher combines 16GB of ExpressCache (which allows for a 30-second boot) with a 500GB hard drive.

However, while the price is a relatively low $849, Ultrabooks in this price range-and cheaper-don't offer the same speed and responsiveness of the MacBook Air and more premium Ultrabooks with a full-fledged SSD.

See Full ReviewSamsung Series 5 Ultra

Where the MacBook Air Beats Ultrabooks

Superior Screen Quality

I don't know where Apple got its displays for the 11- and 13-inch Air, but they're vastly superior to the vast majority of Ultrabook screens out there. They're bright, have excellent viewing angles and don't suffer from nearly as much glare when used outdoors. They're really in a class of their own. I recently used the 13-inch Air outside on a sunny day with no problem. I couldn't do that with the Zenbook UX31, even though it has a higher-res screen. The only Ultrabook screen that's in the same league as the Air is the 13-inch Samsung Series 9.

See MoreFace-off: ASUS Zenbook UX31 vs Apple MacBook Air, Samsung Series 9: Has the Air Met its Match?

Best Touchpad

This is what happens when you have total control of the hardware and software. While many Ultrabooks we've reviewed have touchpads that offer erratic performance, the glass trackpad on the Air is silky smooth, dead accurate and reliable. On the Windows side of the house, we've seen Ultrabook after Ultrabook get touchpad driver updates after launch that fixes one issue or another. Here's a thought: test your product before you release it.

Another advantage for the Air is the myriad multitouch gestures you can use to perform various tasks, from opening Launchpad (four-finger pinch) to engaging Mission Control (three-finger swipe up).

See More: Crappy Clickpads Could Kill the Ultrabook

Comfy, Well-Backlit Keyboard

Having tried all 10 Ultrabooks we've reviewed thus far, I can say with confidence that none of them are as comfortable to type on than the MacBook Air. Apple's ultraportable offers a good amount of travel for its thin profile, enough that I don't have to think about it. Meanwhile, the backlighting is bright and easy to read. Some Ultrabooks don't have backlit keyboards at all (to save on cost), while others like the Samsung Series 9 15 inch are so dark I could barely see it in the dark.

See More: 5 Things to Look For in Your Next Notebook Keyboard

Friendlier Software

As we learned from the recent Flashback Trojan attack, which affected more than 600,000 Macs, Apple's OS is certainly not immune to security threats. But overall I find OS X Lion easier to use than Windows 7. Features like Resume and Auto Save, the time-saving search token feature in Mail, and Mission Control, I find it easier to get work done. Plus, I find Lion to be more stable than Windows 7. I have to force quit or restart much less often.

See More: OS X Mountain Lion Preview

Bottom Line

Ultrabooks are a work in progress. For every model we strongly recommend like the Zenbook UX31 and Samsung Series 9 there are underwhelming Ultrabooks like the chintzy Acer Aspire S3 or SD Card-less IdeaPad U300s. But I expect the quality to improve quickly, especially with upcoming laptops that take advantage of Intel's new Ivy Bridge processors. Lower prices will help, too.

Ultrabooks will get even more exciting when Windows 8 launches later this year. I'm psyched to review models that integrate touchscreens like the IdeaPad Yoga that take full advantage of the OS' capabilities. This Cove Point Tablet-Ultrabook Hybrid concept also looks compelling.

Then again, the 11-inch Air continues to be a great value, while the 13-inch Air remains my favorite ultraportable on the market. If you're willing to spend $1,299, there's no reason to get anything else unless you really want Windows.

Apple will also likely adopt Intel's next-gen Core processors in short order and likely expand its screen size options. I wouldn't be surprised to see a 15-inch Air this year. And with OS X Mountain Lion launching in summer, which brings more iPad features to the fold, the Airs will continue to be the "Ultrabooks" to beat.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Author Bio
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief on
Add a comment
  • TheGooch Says:

    You can have both Windows(using Bootcamp) and MacOS on the Macbook Air. Reviews have said that Windows power management is not good on the MBA, getting you about 4 hours vs the 7 hours you get with MacOS.

  • Mauro Grossi Says:

    Oh, and also have an older Macbook Pro with a Core2Duo processor, half the RAM and no SSD drive... and beats up the Ultrabook with Core i5...

  • Mauro Grossi Says:

    Hello everyone... i'm use both Mac and PC, and if i have to decide between MacOS and Windows.... i stay with MacOS for good. And if i have to choose on the Macbook or an Ultrabook... i would choose a Macbook... i can run Windows on that too... so it's like having both Macbook Air and Ultrabook. And i can say Windows 8 runs excellent on bootcamp... better than an Ultrabook i must say... i have a Macbook Air and a Samsung Ultrabook 9... same processor, same amount of ram... and the Mac beats up the Ultrabook in all senses.

  • Andy Says:

    Any moron stating windows/microsoft is better... Give me a break. Iv been on apple for 4 years and decided to buy a windows laptop to take with me to answer emails etc while i work away from hotels while travelling.... What a big mistake. Worst thing iv ever decided. i will be ordering a macbook pro ASAp cause this is wank

  • Toni Says:

    Ok, I appreciate all of the reviews here, but I am still confused I just purchased a samsung 5 series ultrabook but I have been a fan of all things MAC therefore I don't want to make a decision solely on that I want to decide on the better product for my money, and that is what I need help with.

  • User Says:

    I think this comparison may be due for an update, particularly with the new wave of Macbook Airs and Ivy Bridge ultrabooks. I know, for example, more than a handful of manufacturers have planned or released ultrabooks with HD screens. (Asus and Samsung come to mind.) Also, I believe that the newer models have improved, backlit keyboards. Now if they could only catch up to Apple with regard to the trackpad!

  • John Says:

    I used to use Windows machines exclusively until last December, when I bought a Macbook Air. While I love the form factor of the air, and the gestures, I do miss the flexibility of Windows. For me, the only thing the Macbook does better are the touchpad gestures.

    By the way, you can't say "some ultrabooks don't have backlit keyboards" - compare apples with apples. You don't compare bottom of the line models with top of the line products. If anything, you can argue that ultrabooks offer greater flexibility for your budget than a Macbook Air does.

    By the way, I'm typing now on a Macbook Air as we speak, and use it 100% of the time, although I use a Windows Virtual Machine quite often.

  • antimac Says:

    It's funny the author has so little technical info about laptops. I own a MBA current gen.

    -MBA display is sourced by LG and Samsung.
    They are budget TN panels, although way better than most cheap pannels out there.
    (Apple NEVER uses more expensive IPS panels for their laptops)
    -Envy spectre and Samsung series 9 has IPS and PLS display, which is way better than TN panel.
    -Win7 is way more stable than Lion, and way more convenient too. Try browse flash sites using Lion.
    I have seen my MBA going crazy and cpu usage exceeds 100%.. and they won't sleep even if I close the lid.

    One better thing with OSX is they consume less power WHEN IDLING, which gives a false impression of battery lasting longer than windows.

  • Laptop Says:

    First of all, nice write up Mark!

    Secondly, I just think the macbook is over-priced. I had a refurbished one (so didn't cost me much), and I wasn't sure if it was because it wasn't brand new, but it used to freeze now and again. I re-installed it etc, but to no success. I also had it installed on VMWare and VirtualBox and it wasn't great for me then either. I used to use Windows, it's never let me down. It had the ability to do so much, and many, many suppliers swear buy it. Apple may be a power-horse now (and it all started with some white earphones [ie. a status symbol] in my opinion), but you add up all the companies that are going to offer ultrabooks (and the range of parts/upgrades available) vs. the macbook, then there isn't even a competition.

    Don't get me wrong, I don't hate apple or anything as I have an iPhone and I love it, but where were all these fans and ludicrous prices 10yrs ago?

  • hpfanboy Says:

    micrsoft has better software than appple and all the things that the mac was better at are stupud. A lit up key board so inportan and a better screen and tuchpad give me a brake.ULTRABOOKS RULE

  • Pradeep Says:

    I use both OSes all the time. I have to say, the outlook on the Mac although stable for the most part(it has crashed a few times) is severely restricted and is not as fluid as in Windows 7. It may just be the Office code for Mac vs Windows. Having said that, OSX still seems to handle system resources better than Win 7.

  • Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief Says:

    I switch between both OSes all the time and while I really like Windows 7 it just hangs more for me than the Air. Something like Outlook slows everything to a crawl. But I don't use Outlook on the Mac side, which I should try. Thanks for the comments.

  • Killuinati Says:

    @ Eric: windows 7 is much easier to use than os x. woohahahaha, that's the best joke i heard in my life!

  • Eric Says:

    I agree with Dan. I have nothing against Apple, but having used both OSx and Windows for years, I prefer Windows 7 and think it's much easier to use. I might say the opposite if we were comparing OSx to Windows XP, but it's all opinion. And I can't remember the last time my Mac desktop or my Windows laptop crashed, so I don't buy the stability argument one way or the other.

    I think at this point both OSs have gotten good enough that you simply can't say that one is better than the other.

  • Dan Says:

    You had me until "friendly software." Seriously, that is 100% opinion.

    Otherwise, this is a really great article.

    Windows 7 is extremely stable, what have you had to force close? Windows 7 resume time on my Lenovo U300s Ultrabook is only 2 seconds.

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