Ultrabooks might be small -- they weigh less than 5 pounds and measure 0.82 inch thick or less -- but they pack more than enough power for most users. That's thanks to the baseline requirements imposed by Intel, owner of the Ultrabook name and the company behind the required Intel Core processors found inside Ultrabooks. These laptops also require at least five hours of battery life and a speedy wake-up from sleep of less than seven seconds. Most use solid-state drives (SSD), which are much faster than traditional hard drives.
We found the most positive feedback for Samsung's ATIV series of ultrabooks, and particularly for the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus (Est. $1,400) . Just about every reviewer on both sides of the Atlantic takes a look at the ATIV Book 9 Plus, and most come away impressed. The laptop's QuadHD+ display sets a new standard with its 3,200-by-1,800 pixel count. That surpasses even the 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display with its 2,880-by-1,800-pixel screen. The screen is also touch sensitive -- something that's required to get the most out of the Windows 8.1 operating system. PCMag.com calls the display "jaw dropping," and that helps the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus earn an Editors' Choice award there.
Other reviewers are similarly impressed. Over at CNET, Scott Stein grouses a bit about the price, but adds: "The Book 9 Plus is one of my favorite Windows 8 laptops, feels great to use, and I'd pay a few hundred more for it, begrudgingly." It's powered by a fourth-generation "Haswell" Intel Core i5 processor. The rest of the hardware compliment includes 4 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD. Battery life ranges around eight hours in tests.
Samsung is shipping an upgraded version of the Book 9 Plus in late November 2013 with an even more powerful Core i7 processor (Est. $1,800), but even with the i5, performance is generally fast. In addition, the integrated Intel HD Graphics 4400 is robust enough to handle HD video playback and most games (but keep settings reasonable) without issue. The ergonomics are well liked by most, though Laptop Magazine complains a little about keyboard keys that stick ever so slightly. Connectivity is okay for an ultraportable, though the HDMI and VGA outputs are micro ports, and the dongles you'll likely need are not in the box. Build quality is top shelf, most say, and the Book 9 Plus exudes a premium look and feel that's commensurate with its premium price.
Those that don't give the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus their top billing typically point to the Acer Aspire S7 (Est. $1,330 and up) instead. It boasts a 1080p HD touch screen. HD movies look glorious and so does the laptop itself: "Acer can definitely make a pretty laptop," says Laptop Magazine of the S7's sleek, minimalist design. It starts with a slim aluminum unibody and adds a scratch-resistant white Gorilla Glass 2 lid.
Acer's current version of the S7, the Acer Aspire S7-392, gets a fourth-generation Intel Core i5 processor, which helps push battery life out to more than eight hours of normal to heavy use. The rest of the component lineup includes 8 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SDD. For those with a need for more power, a step-up version (Est. $1,530) brings with it a Core i7 processor and a 256 GB SSD. All versions have the typical Intel HD Graphics 4400 that will be sufficient for all but the most serious of game players.
If maximum portability is a must, the 11.6-inch Sony Vaio Pro 11 (Est. $1,150 and up) is just about the lightest Ultrabook you can buy at just 1.9 pounds. "There's light, and then there's crazy light," says Laptop Magazine. "Impossibly light," echoes Engadget.com's Dana Wollman, who stuffs the Sony into her backpack with her regular laptop and can't even tell it's there.
Sony packs a lot into that featherweight frame. The Vaio Pro 11 can be outfitted with a Core i5 or Core i7 Haswell CPU and is equipped with a full 1080p HD touch screen and a luxurious carbon-fiber shell. Yet its performance can't quite match some of the other ultraportables in tests. Battery life is inconsistent as well, ranging from four hours and 20 minutes to nearly seven hours. An optional sheet battery (Est. $150) doubles that, but it adds about 10 ounces.
Bottom line: The Sony Vaio Pro 11 is a fine choice if you need the lightest possible laptop. But if you can afford the extra pound, experts say you'll get more bang for your buck from either the Acer S7 or Samsung ATIV Book 9.