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5 Featherweight Powerhouse Ultraportables

5 Featherweight Powerhouse Ultraportables
By , Barry Gerber

PC manufacturers and industry analysts can’t stop talking about netbooks, those itty-bitty machines designed for nothing more than a bit of Web browsing. Netbooks may be selling like hotcakes—they are quite cheap, after all—but they’re not ideal for those who want to see connectivity, power and productivity from a thin and light notebook.

Take a netbook on a business trip, and it wouldn’t be able to hold all of your mission-critical applications and downtime entertainment. But what if you could have a featherweight machine that housed most of the innards you’d find in a 15-inch notebook? And how much would you pay for the privilege? Enter the ultraportable, a relatively new PC category taking the business and consumer markets by storm (though in the current economy, ultraportable manufacturers can’t take IT budgets for granted).

Ultraportables are expensive; the five we gathered in our offices range in price from $1,699 to $2,999. But before you get sticker shock, keep in mind that to qualify as an ultraportable—at least the Tom’s Guide’s definition of one—a computer must meet several criteria. It must weigh under 3 pounds, have a screen 12.1 inches in size or smaller, be about an inch thick, and contain several advanced add-ons or possess a luxury design. And odds are that an ultraportable will also feature an extremely low-powered and energy efficient Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a built-in optical drive, an LED backlit screen*, perhaps a solid state drive, and most likely an install of Windows Vista Business.

Most ultraportables have style, as well as the components to compete performance-wise with, say, a low-end 15-inch Dell. With ultraportables, there are sacrifices to be made for the sake of weight and size, though. An ultraportable is nobody’s sole PC—typically it is a third computer, but in some cases, a second.

Typically, ultraportables are marketed as business laptops. Executives and employees constantly on the road may request them from their IT departments, or entrepreneurs may want tiny machines to show off to potential clients. Because of their appeal to this niche, ultraportables are often equipped with security-focused features like fingerprint scanners, and are designed to look deluxe, sophisticated and somewhat conservative. They are often sold with the option for a docking station so road warriors can come home to roost comfortably. They may have the option for extended warranties and specialized damage repair options. And most of them do come with Windows Vista Business already on the machine, to cater to this crowd.

Ultraportables are also designed with consumers in mind. Some manufacturers are putting their little machines on sale in time for the holiday season, and sexy designs are catching the eyes of just about anyone who’d also consider the MacBook Air or any other popular 13.3” notebook.

In this roundup, we’ve include the nearly weightless Toshiba R500, the leather-clad Asus U2E, the expressive Lenovo IdeaPad U110, the staid Fujitsu P8010, and the ultra high-end Sony Vaio TX (which Sony is currently phasing out in order to introduce the new Vaio TT that we will be reviewing soon). In addition to testing the battery life and benchmarking performance of these machines, I also tried to travel and live with these machines; in fact, I wrote each computer’s review on that machine.

We’ve considered three other factors when scoring the machines, besides battery life and performance: style, usability and price. Each computer received a score out of five points in each of the five categories; you’ll find the category score at the end of each category section.

In many ways, these five machines represent the early days of the ultraportable category. As manufacturers work out design kinks and components become ever smaller and stronger, we’ll soon—by necessity—determine entirely new definitions for the categories and methods for evaluating them.

Testing Battery Life and Performance

We tested battery life using the open source benchmark BatteryEater Pro v2.70. To test performance, we used Microsoft Windows Vista’s Windows Experience Index and FutureMark’s PCMark Vantage v1.00, with the November 2007 Hotfix. You can see the details of these tests on the Testing pages toward the end of this article. The Testing pages also present our methodology for the tests and for calculating summary scores (ranging from 1 to 5) for battery life and performance for each notebook. The summary scores are included in the discussion of each notebook immediately following.

To better understand why our tests turned out as they did, be sure to check out the Ultraportable Specifications page, which provides a comprehensive list of components in each of the five notebooks we tested.

*In the pages below, you will see pictures of ultraportable displays. Bear in mind that these photos are only relative representations of the screen’s true picture quality; we have not tested these displays for luminance or contrast levels.

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  • 0 Hide
    enewmen , October 27, 2008 11:50 AM
    I like to read about these notebooks. They still exist and useful while other more exciting categories are around. (MID, UMPC, Netbook, and ultra gaming notebooks)
  • 0 Hide
    waffle911 , October 27, 2008 11:48 PM
    Quote:
    The unit’s dimensions are 10.8” wide by 7.7” deep, and 0.88” thick, which is thinner than the Apple MacBook Air.

    No it's not. The MBA is at no point thicker than 0.79", and Apple makes a point of it on the product design page.

    Otherwise, good article. But I think I'm not the target consumer for these products, so I'm going to be getting the new MacBook Pro. I need that extra performance for graphics-intensive applications. Then again, that would be a primary computer. If I had the extra cash, I would go for a MBA as a secondary, because I can't stand the smaller keyboards and screens but a laptop more portable than the MBP would be nice to have sometimes.

    Then again, I'm a Mac lover, so my views are undoubtedly skewed towards almost anything that runs OSX and has a giant Apple logo plastered on it. :p 
  • 0 Hide
    tim851 , October 28, 2008 7:55 AM
    This article is full of logical mishaps where the author contradicts herself, e.g.

    "I never felt this machine get warmer than room temperature, nor make any noise at all. That’s surprising given the U110 has a weak hard drive (only running at 4,200 RPM)"

    [a weak hard disk should make it NOT suprising]

    or

    "...the bottom can get hot. Some of the heat and noise can be attributed to the U2E’s underpowered CPU (...) With such a low-power processor, this machine is bound to stay pretty cool to the touch most of the time."

    [the second sentence is correct but (rightfully) contradicts the first one]

    Those two aren't the only ones. The article should be reworked.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , October 28, 2008 9:32 AM
    Pity not to see the very lovely Samsung Q210 in this list. I've gone for the Q310, simply out of preference for something a little more tangible, but the spec and build quality on both of these are super, not to mention the reasonable prices!
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , October 28, 2008 12:28 PM
    Finally, I was wondering when Tom's would review an Asus based laptop considering they've been around for years. I actually like Asus's designs and own an ancient Z33ae ultralight from years ago although recently I've begun to wonder if the leather in the new laptops isn't overkill. :)  Still considering the heavy use / abuse I've put my Asus laptop through while only suffering from a burnt out power button light, I have to admire it's durability. Sure they do cost a little more but the build quality is what makes up for it. My experience with Toshibas so far is that they're cheap and they work extremely well. Just don't expect anything special, they seem mass produced. Sony's I've had breakdown on me unfortunately. They have admirable design but it's something I'm reluctant to touch.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , October 28, 2008 1:27 PM
    The Thinkpad X200s and X200 should have been part of this review. They use the newer Centrino 2 Montevina platform with the faster X4500HD GPU that can run Blu-Ray and with the Intel 5300 WiFi.
    The X200s goes for about $2K but there will be sales. The X200 has already been on sale with a $1300 pricetag for a full config.

    X200s Review (with link to X200):
    http://www.laptopmag.com/review/laptops/lenovo-thinkpad-x200s.aspx


    X200s: 11 hours battery with WiFi LED backlit 1440x900 display 3.2 lbs 12" with full sized keyboard, same as in larger "T" series. Full sized 2.5" hard drive or SSD 64 GB or 128 GB. 1.86 GHz SL CPU

    X200: 8 hours battery with WiFi CCFL backlit 1280x800 display 3.6 lbs and same options as X200s. CPU 2.26 GHz or 2.4 GHz. Fast!

    Both laptops have two smaller battery options for less weight.
  • 0 Hide
    Tomsguiderachel , October 28, 2008 4:07 PM
    tim851This article is full of logical mishaps where the author contradicts herself, e.g."I never felt this machine get warmer than room temperature, nor make any noise at all. That’s surprising given the U110 has a weak hard drive (only running at 4,200 RPM)"[a weak hard disk should make it NOT suprising]or"...the bottom can get hot. Some of the heat and noise can be attributed to the U2E’s underpowered CPU (...) With such a low-power processor, this machine is bound to stay pretty cool to the touch most of the time."[the second sentence is correct but (rightfully) contradicts the first one]Those two aren't the only ones. The article should be reworked.

    Thanks for your comment, Tim851.
    Here's what I meant about the U110's weak hard drive. I've found that when a machine has a weak hard drive, the drive tends to spin almost constantly even during basic computing tasks. When this constant spinning occurs, the machine typically gets hot. But on the U110, even though the hard drive was only 4200rpm, the hard drive at least didn't cause the machine to get warm--it didn't seem to strain or spin constantly as one would expect. Does that make more sense? Yes, a lower powered processor would help to keep things cool, but a severely underpowered hard drive could make things hotter, too. Happy to discuss further.

    All the best,
    Rachel Rosmarin, Editor of Tom's Guide
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , October 28, 2008 9:03 PM
    The TZ series is still available for purchase. Possibly not that particular model but overall the recall did not kill the entire product line.
  • 0 Hide
    Tomsguiderachel , October 28, 2008 9:06 PM
    anon3265467The TZ series is still available for purchase. Possibly not that particular model but overall the recall did not kill the entire product line.

    Hi Anon,
    Can you provide a link to Sony's site showing a TZ available for purchase? If so, I'll amend the article. Thanks.

    Rachel Rosmarin, Editor of Tom's Guide
  • 0 Hide
    Xajel , October 30, 2008 2:53 AM
    hell no, the first time I saw lenovo in the pics I thought ( when does Dell Studio becomes an Ultra portable notebook ? )

    Lenovo just copied Dell's design and made some changes !!
  • 0 Hide
    spiralsun1 , November 1, 2008 3:47 PM
    Here we go again... who would ever buy a notebook of any shape or size at any price with only 2-3 hours of battery life? That's basically UNUSEABLE. They talk like it's acceptable. A dead computer has NO performance, NO style, NO value! Cross country trips? what country -- Leichtenstein? WORTHLESS! I am still waiting -- please make a USEABLE portable device with at the very least 4-6 hours battery time, preferably 8-10 hours or more. I would like to be able to surf, show the kids a movie, do some work, play a game etc. on a trip and then watch another movie myself after that and show people pictures of my family. IF YOU MAKE IT, I WILL BUY IT IMMEDIATELY. I don't want to have to constantly watch and worry about the battery, and people use their computers for EVERYTHING these days -- THATS WHY WE WANT PORTABLE ONES NOW! Is my life supposed to stop in 2-3 hours? COME ON! I am getting upset about this, I KNOW I'm not the only one who feels this way. What's wrong with these people? Make a useable laptop that I can use all day (8-12 hours) and can plug in overnight. End of story.
  • 0 Hide
    Tomsguiderachel , November 1, 2008 4:55 PM
    spiralsun1Here we go again... who would ever buy a notebook of any shape or size at any price with only 2-3 hours of battery life? That's basically UNUSEABLE. They talk like it's acceptable. A dead computer has NO performance, NO style, NO value! Cross country trips? what country -- Leichtenstein? WORTHLESS! I am still waiting -- please make a USEABLE portable device with at the very least 4-6 hours battery time, preferably 8-10 hours or more. I would like to be able to surf, show the kids a movie, do some work, play a game etc. on a trip and then watch another movie myself after that and show people pictures of my family. IF YOU MAKE IT, I WILL BUY IT IMMEDIATELY. I don't want to have to constantly watch and worry about the battery, and people use their computers for EVERYTHING these days -- THATS WHY WE WANT PORTABLE ONES NOW! Is my life supposed to stop in 2-3 hours? COME ON! I am getting upset about this, I KNOW I'm not the only one who feels this way. What's wrong with these people? Make a useable laptop that I can use all day (8-12 hours) and can plug in overnight. End of story.

    Thanks for your comment, SpiralSun. Okay, you're right--there's no tiny computer that lasts 8-12 hours. We just aren't there yet, technologically speaking. But, most of the computers in our round up can easily last 4 hours, and the Sony will definitely last more than 6 hours. Keep in mind that our BatteryEater test maxes out a machine's power consumption. In normal use, all of these machines would last more than 2 hours.

    Thanks,
    Rachel Rosmairn
    Editor, Tom's Guide
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , November 2, 2008 5:33 PM
    Instead of considering these laptops, I'd rather go at BenQ X31. Extra inch on the display but monsterous graphics(8600GT) for a 13 inchers, and this means hell more performance and more plausible productivity. Have a look

    http://benq.com/products/joybook/?product=1302&page=specifications
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , November 5, 2008 6:04 PM
    I love the idea of an ultraportable, but Tom's Guide and I have different requirements. I'm old enough that a larger screen means more to me than a DVD drive. I'm more likely to work on the plane than I am to watch a DVD. I almost never use the optical drive on my laptop other than to load software. Most people would consider me a road warrior, but my computing needs are very simple: internet, Word Processing, simple spreadsheets, email and presentations. Light weight, long battery life and a screen big enough that I don't have to spend more time scrolling than reading. I've loved my Fujitsu Lifebook S-6231, but it's now a little long in the tooth. the only problems have been short battery life and it's 4 lb. weight.
  • 0 Hide
    hellwig , November 5, 2008 8:16 PM
    Couple things confused me. First, there's a button on the Sony that can launch multimedia without booting? Does this mean the machine can act like a DVD/MP3/MP4 player without booting into Windows? To me that would be an incredible Plus, watching videos on a plane without Windows running/eating up more power.

    Second, what does Windows Vista Business w/ XP Pro Recovery media mean? Makes it sound like the manufacturer put the wrong DVD in the packaging. Is this supposed to mean you can revert to WindowsXP with the media they included (in addition to restoring Vista if necessary)?
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