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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  • Malih - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    thank you, the article is good, but reading the text MagLock really bugs me Reply
  • Shadowmage - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    If you don't mind a 12.5" laptop: the Lenovo X220. After discounts, it regularly sells for <$800, even under $700 at times. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Yeah, I know... and Lenovo still won't send us one. :p Reply
  • OwnedKThxBye - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Stopped reading after the second paragraph. Maybe the title should be changed to Acer Aspire S3 vs. ASUS UX31E VS MBA? Reply
  • cserwin - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Ha, well... then he'd have to put the MBA display measurs in the charts. Reply
  • Toshio - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    Same here, never had read such a biased article in Anandtech before. Anand should have written this one. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    I've picked up and played with a MacBook Air, specifically to see where the "ultrabook before they were called ultrabooks" sits. If you can't understand what Apple did right, I'm sorry, but to not mention it when discussing other similar PCs is silly. What would Anand have done differently? Not compared it with the MBA? Reply
  • Toshio - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    No. Anand (being a Mac lover himself) wouldn't have trashed ultrabooks favoring MBA at the very beginning of the article.

    Also, windows on a MBA as main OS? you must be kidding. MBA is great if you like OSX, else go shop elsewhere. This is not about Windows vs. OSX, this is about writing a balanced article for people looking for their next Windows laptop.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    I've used both, and I disagree. Apple has the build quality of the ASUS, better display quality than any of the others, a backlit keyboard, and a typing experience that's slightly better in my opinion than the others as well. However, to say I "trashed" ultrabooks is a stretch; I said "you could do a lot worse than simply buying a MacBook Air" and that's entirely true. Worse display for sure, worse build quality on several, worse aesthetics, and worse keyboards. You can also do better: better pricing, higher resolution (only on the ASUS), and USB 3.0 are all available.

    OS X be damned, if money isn't a major concern I would buy a MacBook Air in place of most of these ultrabooks. You don't buy an ultrabook because you're looking for a budget class of hardware; you buy one because you're after a good computing experience. MacBook Air provides that, and hence it's the mark that the ultrabooks really have to beat. They don't do that, just as Anand pointed out in the UX21E review. To quote: "the display in the MBA alone is reason to opt for it over the Zenbook, even for Windows use."

    As I mention in the conclusion, out of the current crop of ultrabooks my pick is the ASUS UX31E. It's the best construction out of the options, but it's not perfect. You're taking on paragraph at the beginning (i.e. the introduction) and trying to extrapolate to the rest of the review. Read the whole page, take off your preconceptions of what I'm trying to say, and see what I actually say. For thin and light ultraportables, the current ultrabooks are impressive but they don't beat Apple in every area. You will have to compromise somewhere, and you have to compromise by going with ultrabooks in the first place (no discrete GPU means no gaming), but that's something for the individual to decide.
  • Toshio - Wednesday, December 21, 2011 - link

    For many of us, running windows on a MBA is not an option (wrong keyboard layout, trackpad, DRIVERS!, etc.). I've been using a Samsung series 9 for more than a year now so I'm sure there ARE real alternatives for a laptop with a forced OS while still having a backlit kbd, USB 3.0, SD, HDMI, Ethernet, etc.


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