The Best Ultraportable Laptop of 2012S

For a while now, ultraportables have been the only class of laptop that really matters. Sure, you can find more powerful machines for less money. But the mix of portability, speed, and beauty—along with the miniature muscle of Intel's Ivy Bridge chips—has made ultrabooks the best laptops to own for almost all of us.

Problem was, this has been a class dominated by Apple. Not anymore. For the first time, there are multiple ultrabooks that even iSnobs couldn't justifiably roll their eyes at. And that's pretty exciting.

Testing Methodology

We used these laptops as real people would use them. Yes, we ran synthetic benchmarks, punishing battery tests, and transfer speed evaluations. These things matter, but only insofar as they help separate a very close family of machines; these notebooks are more than a little similar to each other.

All of the computers tested here have the signature benefits of an ultrabook—even the non "ultrabook" MacBook Air. Each is small, fast, and starts up and resumes quickly. All of them run on Intel Core i5 or i7 Ivy Bridge processors, and have the accompanying Intel HD 4000 graphics. Pretty fine points of differentiation—but ones that add up significantly.

For our battery tests, we focused on heavy use scenarios rather than some bullshit easy-A laptop pleasure cruise. The numbers reflect a battery-slaying helltest. Specifically, we ran 20 tabs, half of which self-refresh, and the last of which was playing and buffering a 100-hour Nyan Cat video on YouTube.

We're also not getting into a Windows vs. OS X holy war. You like the operating system you like. This is purely about the machines themselves, and how they interact with their given platforms.

Special Achievement

The Best Ultraportable Laptop of 2012

Toshiba Satellite U845W

The extra horizontal real estate is useful, and it never feels cramped. If you multitask with a lot of windows on the screen, this is one of the better ultrabooks for you. But the screen's display quality isn't up to par. If you're going to gear your whole product toward this big 21:9 aspect ratio, why not use the most insanely bright, vibrant, realistic screen available? The 1792x768 panel is fine, but leaves you wanting a really amazing screen like the Zenbook's. The Satellite U845W seems like a great idea—one we're interested in seeing more of—but also one that isn't fully baked yet.

Honorable Mention

The Best Ultraportable Laptop of 2012S

8. Sony Vaio T

This is pretty much unacceptable: The Vaio T feels like a toy. Its internals are fine—mostly in line performance-wise with everything else here—but nearly every aspect of using it is subpar. The keyboard is a bit too spaced out, so typing accurately is hard; the screen is washed out, and build quality is a joke—especially from a company capable of making such wonderful hardware. And for some idiot reason it only has a single USB 3.0 port (the other is USB 2.0). Except for the also-honorably-mentioned Dell XPS 14, all of the other laptops we tested had at least two. [$1590 as tested]

The Best Ultraportable Laptop of 2012S

7. Lenovo U310

Oh man, what happened? Last year's U300 was a bright spot in that generation of ultrabooks, but the U310 screws up a good thing. The keyboard loses some of the depth that made the U300 so pleasant to type on, and its undercarriage is insanely squishy. You can press the middle of the keyboard down nearly half an inch with your index finger. And when you're doing anything processor-intensive—like playing a game—an unacceptable amount of heat blows right up out of the keyboard. These are all new problems from last year. [$1200 as tested]

The Best Ultraportable Laptop of 2012S

6. Dell XPS 14

The XPS is mostly fine—except for its single USB 3.0 jack. It's decent in most categories. But at 14 inches and 4.6 pounds, it's a little big without adding enough features (like the XPS 15's optical drive) or performance to justify its large imprint. [$1500 as tested]


The Contenders

The Best Ultraportable Laptop of 2012S

5. Acer Aspire S5

The Aspire S5 is a ground-rule double. It's really thin, really light, really responsive, and really fast. That's most of what you want from a laptop. But its usability takes a major hit on account of its neat-but-frustrating mechanical dock on the backside that hides its ports. Its troubling battery life is also a bummer.

About the dock: it allows the S5 to cram a bunch of ports—full HDMI!—into a tiny, tiny body. But it's so damn inconvenient. To get at any port—even a USB—you have to press a button that activates a motor that causes the infernal thing to pop out of the laptop's butt. Then you reach around and fumble with a blind-plug-in like a clumsy prom date. It's loud enough that you wouldn't want to use it in, say, a library or a quiet office—and its just slow enough to annoy you. Also: It's going to break. Bet you $5.

Here's the thing: Acer has figured out how to make completely, refreshingly usable computers. Even the Aspire S3, which wasn't all that impressive on any objective level, was pleasant to type on. And it had the best trackpad performance of any other ultrabook. The same is true for the S5.

But it seems for every great feature, there's an equally bad or annoying aspect: The S5 is absurdly light at 2.65 pounds, but it's got that pain-in-the-life dock. Transfer speeds were insanely fast—20- to 50-percent faster on large files (10 300MB files and 50 10MB files)—but its 1366x768 screen is the worst of any of the better ultrabooks. And battery life was a measly 1 hour 40 minutes in our super high usage test (average was just under 3 hours). Still, the S5 is a totally usable machine—fast and comfortable, if a little clumsy. Unfortunately, the price tag is a little steep for that kind of description.

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Acer Aspire S5
Processor: Intel Core i7-3517U CPU 1.9GHz 2.4 GHz
Memory: 4.0 GB
Storage: 256 GB SSD
Display: Resolution: 1366x768 ; Size 13.3 inch
Dimensions: H 0.6" W 12.8" D 8.9"
Weight: 2.65 lbs
Tested Battery Life: 1 hour 40 minutes
Ports: SD Card slot, (2) USB 3.0, Thunderbort, HDMI, Headphone jack
Price as Tested: $1400


The Best Ultraportable Laptop of 2012S

4. Vizio Thin + Light

The Vizio Thin + Light does a lot of things right and a few things very, very wrong.

To start, Vizio's display panel, which you'd expect to be pretty outstanding, is only pretty good. The 1600x900 on the 14-inch model is better than most ultrabook displays—decent color and a great viewing angle—but it doesn't punch you in the face with quality like you might hope, or expect from a company that has a rep for making such excellent TVs. That's too bad, because the design funnels your eyes toward the display, with an all-gray keyboard and trackpad. It's a nice little trick, and it makes you wish the screen was a lot better.

Overall, the T+L's design is wonderful. Its unibody construction isn't quite as sturdy as Apple's, but it's right there with Samsung's Series 9 as one of the most visually striking ultrabooks. Unfortunately, even though the non-island keyboard—reminiscent of the pre-unibody MacBook Pro's—is part of that great design, it's just not up to par. The keys feel balanced—rather than securely perched—on their switches. And while typing at full speed is great, it just feels cheap at any other speed. And the trackpad. Oof, the trackpad. Physically, it feels a little loose, and is oddly undersized for a 14-inch laptop. Performance-wise, it's terrible. The cursor jumps around the screen, making it difficult to control what you're clicking.

Vizio says that it plans on updating the experience as much as possible, which will mean updated drivers for the trackpad in the future. For now, though, it's a tough sell—even as an entertainment option.

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Vizio Thin + Light
Processor:m Intel Core i7-3517U CPU @ 1.90GHz 2.40GHz
Memory: 4.0 GB
Storage: 256GB SSD
Display: Resolution: 1600x900 ; Size 14 inch
Graphics: Intel HD 4000
Dimensions: W 9.9" H 0.68" D 14.9"
Weight: 3.69 lbs
Battery: "Up to 7 hours"
Tested Battery Life: 3 hours 20 minutes
Ports: HDMI, (2) USB 3.0, Headphone jack
Price as Tested: $1200


The Best Ultraportable Laptop of 2012S

3. Samsung Series 9

This is the most beautiful laptop you can own. Seriously. The Series 9 is gorgeous, well built, and performs well. But its build quality is its only outstanding characteristic. Honestly, that's enough to make it desirable, since "standard" for this generation of ultrabook is pretty damn good. But it's not enough to really stand out, or get past a few pretty big letdowns.

The Series 9's display is one of the big letdowns. The matte 1600x900 screen on the 15-inch unit simply doesn't look as good as Vizio's, and doesn't have nearly the viewing angle. But the fact that it's matte will be enough to get some people to forget that; the anti-glare and lack of smudging really is nice.

The other big issue is the keyboard. It's just not comfortable to type on. The keys are far too shallow—most likely in order to keep the Series 9 so thin—and they're quite stiff.

Reviewer's note: This is based on the 15-inch Series 9. We will update this with impressions on the 13-inch model shortly.

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Samsung Series 9
Processor: 1.7GHz Intel Core i5 17w Dual Core Ivy Bridge
Memory: 8GB
Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 4000
Storage: 128GB SSD
Display: Resolution: 1600x900 ; Size 15 inch
Dimensions: 14.0" x 9.3" x .58"
Weight: 3.63 pounds
Tested Battery life: 3 hours 3 minutes
Ports: Micro HDMI, 2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, Mini VGA, SD card
Price as Tested: $1400


The Best Ultraportable Laptop of 2012S

2. Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A

Literally every single thing that was wrong with last year's Zenbook has been massively improved. It's just that in some cases, massive improvement still doesn't equal awesomeness. In other areas, however, the gains are absurdly good.

Without question, the highpoint of the Zenbook Prime is its screen. It's gorgeous. It's the best screen on any laptop in this class. It's not just the 1080p resolution—it handles color better than any other panel, and its viewing angle is as good as Vizio's.

But ugh, the trackpad. It's still the trackpad. Last year's was awful. This year's is much improved, but still rather bad. It's more accurate, but click zones are still too inconsistent and lose your clicks far too often. It's a little too smooth, and seems to lose your finger from time to time. Scrolling and gestures are also unresponsive or extremely choppy.

Otherwise, the Zenbook was above average in most of the tests we ran, was middle of the road in the battery test, and had a surprisingly good keyboard. It is very, very good. But its tragic flaw is simply too deep for it to be the best.

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Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A
Processor: Intel Core i7-3517U CPU @ 1.9GHZ 2.40 GHZ
Memory: 4.0 GB
Storage: 128 GB
Display: Resolution: 1920x1080 ; Size 13.3 inch
Dimensions: 12.9 x 0.3 x 8.9 inches
Weight: 2.9 lbs
Graphics: Intel HD 4000
Tested Battery Life: 2 hours 30 minutes
Ports: SD Card, Mini display, Mini HDMI, (2) USB 3.0, headphone jack
Price as Tested: $1300


The Best Ultraportable Laptop of 2012S

1. MacBook Air

The MacBook Air is maybe the most perfect laptop ever made. It doesn't have the same gospel choir highpoint as the Zenbook Prime's display, but there is literally nothing subpar about it. Performance, keyboard, trackpad, battery life, transfers—all of them are are either the best or ahead of the curve. There is no part of using this computer that is not pleasant.

Thing is, this is the closest this race has ever been. The MBA's 1440x900 display is really nice, but it gets demolished by the Zenbook Prime's. And if you use a mouse with your ultrabook (please don't, but if you do), the Zenbook's big problem is no longer a problem.

But that's not the race we're in. The totality of the MBA is so consistently great that when features of another comprable laptop surpass it, it feels momentous, even if the rest of the machine can't keep pace. Maybe that calculus shifts once Windows 8 and its army of hybrids invades later this year. But for now, the MacBook Air is still the god laptop.

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MacBook Air
Processor: 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 17W Dual Core Ivy Bridge
Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 4000 512MB (Integrated)
RAM: 8GB (4GB x 4GB); non-upgradeable
Storage: 256GB Solid State Drive
Display: 13.5-inch 1440x900
Ports: Thunderbolt (compatible with Mini DisplayPort), 2x USB 3.0, SD Card Slot, MagSafe 2.0
Dimensions: Height: 0.11-0.68 inch; Width: 12.8 inches; Depth: 8.94 inches
Weight: 2.96 pounds
Tested Battery Life: 2 hours 48 minutes
Price as configured: $1600

Upcoming additions:
Lenovo X1 Carbon
Fujitsu LifeBook
Toshiba Satellite