Why Choose an Ultrabook?
The top performers in our review are the Lenovo Yoga 900, the Gold Award winner; the VAIO Z flip, the Silver Award winner; and the Samsung Notebook 9 Spin, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 ultrabooks.
So what is an ultrabook? While it’s easy to get confused with all of the “ultrabook vs laptop” branding, the difference between ultrabook and laptop is minimal; an ultrabook is basically a laptop that is slim, portable and ready to use all day. These portable laptops are distinguished by premium designs that measure under 0.9-inch thick and weigh less than 5 pounds. Screen sizes range from 12 to 14 inches, making them small enough to carry in a backpack or large purse, but not so small as to feel cramped during use.
While Intel has a list of specifications for what can be officially labelled an Ultrabook, the category has grown beyond Intel’s licensed definition, and thin and light laptops, built as much for portability as for performance, has become a category in itself. This was always the case – Intel’s Ultrabook standards were initially a response to the success of Apple’s MacBook Air – but most of the ultraportable category still hews to the same basic template. Across the board you’ll find slim, lightweight machines with long-lasting batteries, zippy solid-state drive storage and speedy performance.
The ultrabook category is as much about performance as it is portability, combining laptop-grade processors and long-lasting battery life. Top ultrabooks, like the Lenovo Yoga 900, the VAIO Z flip, and the Samsung Notebook 9 Spin, are powerful enough for serious work, and mobile enough to do it all on the go. For a closer look at how these portable laptops let you do everything from watching Netflix in bed to doing working on the road, check out our individual reviews, or try reading some of our articles on ultrabooks.
The promises of portability may bring to mind the netbook of yesteryear, which sacrificed performance for small sizes and equally small price tags, but there’s not much in common beyond the two. Ultrabooks may be slim featherweights compared to mainstream laptops, but they do it with similar performance and some of the best battery life of any style laptop, and the prices tend toward the premium. If you want something more affordable, and maybe even more portable, netbooks are still around, but they don't offer the same premium level of performance and comfortable use.
Ultrabooks: How We Tested, What We Found
For our evaluations, we gathered together some of the best ultrabooks on the market, pulling together 10 of the thin and light laptops. We obtained some of the units in our comparison on loan from the manufacturers and others through retail purchase. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
While all of them are decent systems in their own right, a lot goes into finding one that works best for you, such as sifting through the different features, testing the different capabilities and looking closely for flaws you might not otherwise see until after you’ve made a purchase. To gauge performance, we and our colleagues at Laptop Mag subjected all of these to a series of benchmark tests designed to measure performance, graphics capability, battery life and display quality.
Performance & Specifications: What's Under the Hood
Ultrabooks and their ilk are all about balancing PC capabilities with portability. To that end, most thin and light PCs rely on Intel’s low-voltage Core i5 and i7 processors. Unlike standard laptop CPUs, these processors are made to draw less power and generate less heat, with a slimmer overall thickness, allowing for thinner, lighter laptop designs without sacrificing the performance you expect from a laptop. The processors used in the current crop of ultrabooks are from Intel’s Broadwell and Skylake model lines, which include onboard graphics processors and speeds of 2.2GHz to 3.3GHz. For optimal performance, look for models that not only have a speedy processor, but also pair the processor with more RAM, as larger memory offers smoother performance and efficiency.
In our reviews, we focused on two tests to give us a sense of general performance capability. The first is Primate Labs' Geekbench 3 test, which simulates real-world use through standardized workloads designed to push single-core and multi-core processors to the outside limits of performance and speed. Higher scores indicate faster performance. The second general test is Laptop's Spreadsheet Macro test, which matches a spreadsheet of 20,000 names to their corresponding addresses in OpenOffice and times the results. The shorter the time, the faster the performance.
We also test for graphics capability using two tests: 3DMark and World of Warcraft's built-in framerate test. 3DMark is a synthetic graphics test which renders two scenes to test the system's ability to render detailed environments similar to those seen in a video game. The two scenes (Ice Storm Unlimited and Fire Strike Ultra) each produce a score. Higher scores indicate better graphics capability. The second test uses World of Warcraft as a real-world graphics test, with the benchmarking happening inside the popular online game. This test measures how many individual frames are rendered per second, with higher frame rates indicating smoother graphics and better gaming capability. Most of the ultrabooks we reviewed run this test without difficulty, but none of these systems are built for serious gaming.
Most systems opt for integrated graphics solutions which share silicon with the processor and use a portion of the RAM for graphics processing. This is more than adequate for uses like loading up graphics-heavy web pages and streaming video, but if you plan to use your ultrabook for PC gaming or multimedia editing, you’ll want a system with better graphics hardware. In our line-up of systems, the best graphics capability was found in the Lenovo Yoga 900, which has Intel's newest processor and graphics solution. The VAIO Z flip also performed well in graphics tests; it gets a big step up in video and media capability over most ultrabooks thanks to Intel's high-performance Iris graphics solution.
Portability: Tote-ability Is Tops
In a category defined by lightweight, slim designs, portability is a very big deal. If you’re buying a thin and light laptop, you’re probably looking for something that you can take and use on the go. Ultrabooks combine slim designs and premium materials like carbon-fiber or alloys of aluminum or magnesium to keep weight and bulk to a minimum. We looked at both weight and thickness in determining portability, but also considered things like the sturdiness of construction in our ratings.
Beyond mere portability is the added benefit of mobility. While any of these slim laptops can be slipped into a backpack or tucked under an arm to carry it from point A to point B, only a few are built to be used in between. For mobile use, some ultrabooks feature convertible designs that add tablet functionality to the slim and light laptop. With touchscreens and hinges that let you use the device as either a laptop or a tablet, these 2-in-1 ultrabooks are ideal for using on the move. A system with a touchscreen isn't necessarily better than one without, but on Windows systems, the lack of touch capability will prevent you from using some built-in features, like on-screen gesture controls.
Battery life is also a big concern in portability, since it dictates how much usable time you have between charging. Battery life was tested with an automated test that looped through several functions to simulate normal use, timing from the moment the laptop is unplugged to the second the battery runs out of power. Tests were standardized as much as possible between systems and were run with certain functions disabled and screen brightness set to 100 nits. Longer battery test times indicate longer overall battery life.
Display: Costs and Benefits of Eye Candy
Full HD displays with 1920 x 1080 resolution are the standard for ultrabooks, but you’ll see several models on the market that far exceed that baseline, like the 2560 x 1600 Retina Display on the Apple MacBook Pro or the 3200 x 1800 of the Samsung Notebook 9 Spin. In our evaluation, a higher resolution is better because it offers better detail in images and sharper, more readable text.
Desires for premium displays are counterbalanced by concerns for battery life. While all of the ultrabooks we reviewed have long battery life, those with premium displays – those with higher than 1080p resolution and brighter backlighting – usually take a hit in the battery department. Higher resolutions mean many thousand more glowing pixels packed into a similar screen size, and vivid colors are often the result of brighter backlighting. It’s a balancing act between the two concerns, but most of the systems we looked at still manage to offer at least 8 hours of battery life, while others stretched battery life significantly further due in part to a less luxe display. We rated display quality separate from battery considerations, but it's worth considering which is more important to you when deciding on a system.
We also rated display quality based on brightness and color accuracy. While some display testing was performed by Top Ten Reviews, we also referenced Laptop Mag's test results for the majority of the ultrabooks we reviewed. Brightness is measured in nits, a measure equivalent to a square meter of light produced by a single candle. With display brightness dialed up to the highest level, readings were taken in the center and four corners of the display. The brightness readings were then averaged together, providing the score for maximum display brightness.
Color accuracy is another aspect of display quality, measured in DeltaE, which is the deviation between the true color and the representation of that color on the display, as measured with a colorimeter. Color accuracy tests display a sequence of 70 different colors, measuring the accuracy of each, and then averaging the accuracy overall (Average DeltaE). A lower number indicates a smaller deviation, and thus greater color accuracy.
Connectivity: Common Ports Add to Ease of Use
While ultrabooks tend to shed many of the common laptop features in the pursuit of thinner chassis designs – ditching such common options as optical drives and Ethernet ports – there are still plenty of ports and inputs on offer, but each machine will have its own mix of connections. For our evaluation, we looked to balance capability with ease of use. A USB 3.0 port is significantly faster than the older USB 2.0 standard, but both are often included on a system, making an all-3.0 system uncommon, even though it's the preferred choice. A newer standard, USB Type-C, is also starting to make its way onto the market, but it requires an aftermarket adapter for use with most USB-equipped products, so it isn't necessarily an asset since the new port isn't the most straightforward or simple to use.
Video outputs are another common connection, with HDMI serving as the standard, but many manufacturers opt for equivalent ports, like a mini DisplayPort or Thunderbolt 2. While there are monitors and HDTVs that accept these other video connections, they lack the ubiquity of HDMI and often require yet another adapter to work with standard connections.
Help & Support: Warranties and More
With any tech product you’ll want to be able to get assistance when things get complicated or stop working. We also took into account the ease of reaching support, be it via phone, online chat or social media. We also included information from Laptop Mag's independent customer service testing in our rankings.
Best Ultrabooks: Our Verdict and Recommendations
The Gold Award winner is the Lenovo Yoga 900, a 2-in-1 ultrabook that offers both laptop and tablet functionality in one of the thinnest and lightest systems we reviewed. The Yoga 900 is outfitted with an Intel Core i7-6500U, one of Intel’s new Skylake processors, which propelled it to the top of the charts in both performance and graphics capability. Paired with a gorgeous display and rich selection of ports and features, the Lenovo sets the bar for almost every category on our list. The fact that it can be flipped around from a laptop to tablet with ease is just a bonus.
The VAIO Z flip is our Silver Award winner, with a premium 2-in-1 design that looks and feels luxurious, even alongside other high-end designs. The VAIO Z flip also boasts some of the best performance in the category thanks to an Intel Core i7-6567U processor, part of Intel’s new Skylake line; and leads in graphics performance thanks to Intel Iris graphics.
The Samsung Notebook 9 Spin is our Bronze Award winner as an ultrabook that combines solid performance with a convenient, flexible design and impressive 3200 x 1800 display. With more than 9 hours battery life, a slim chassis and coming in at less than 3 pounds, the Samsung Notebook 9 Spin is a great ultrabook for use on the go.