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.