Group test: seven Ultrabooks compared and rated

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RESULTS

Our Real World Benchmarks show that there isn’t much to separate the seven Ultrabooks. Even the Core i7 models are only around 12% ahead of the Core i5’s.

This is why we’ve also chosen to test the speed of the SSD (or in Acer’s case, the mechanical hard disk) in each system to determine what kind of transfer speeds you can expect. Those speeds might not affect how fast applications run, but they will impact on how long they take to load, and make for a far snappier-feeling system.

As ever, battery life is a crucial part of a laptop’s performance. Our light-use battery test didn’t throw up any big surprises, but the heavy-use figures see some models faring much better than others. This is where the largest batteries and the most power-efficient designs show their worth.

The figures from our display testing were a disappointment. Both the Acer and Lenovo models look noticeably dim, and struggle to remain visible in sunlight. Contrast figures, however, were poor, with most struggling to reveal shadows in photos and movies. Only the Samsung exhibits a decent contrast ratio, and that’s undermined by its cold, bluish tone. But there’s more to image quality than brightness and contrast – this is why we pinpoint issues with colour accuracy in each review.


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VIEW FROM THE LABS

We never expected any one manufacturer to nail the Ultrabook concept from day one – after all, even Apple’s MacBook Air needed several major redesigns and specification updates before it found the right formula – but we’re pleased to say that what we’ve seen so far shows immense promise.

Previously, few Windows laptops were capable of rivalling the MacBook Airs, yet, in only a few months, Intel’s concept has coaxed out a set of alluring, and often excellent, designs, many of which are more than lovely enough to tempt people away from the Apple Store.

Lenovo, for one, has never made such a pretty portable; Dell’s XPS 13 marks the pinnacle of design in a range that’s seen many great laptops over the years (remember the slightly bonkers Adamo XPS?); and Asus has outdone itself with its pair of Zenbooks. Acer’s Aspire S3 stuns in a different way – it’s not only rather pretty, but at $1055, it’s also surprisingly affordable.

There’s room for improvement. Apple calibrates every laptop display before it leaves the factory – a decision that makes the most of the LCD panels it employs. By comparison, not one Ultrabook manufacturer does the same, and every display here is markedly inferior. A display that’s simply okay isn’t good enough for an Ultrabook – it needs to be great.

The final weakness is one we hope Windows 8 will address: gesture control. Apple’s OS X and multitouch gestures are a match made in heaven: with every stroke and flick of a finger rewarded with a rapid and seamless response, it’s enough to make any Ultrabook feel clunky. If Intel, Microsoft and the manufacturers set their mind to it – and with touchscreen Ultrabooks slated for 2012, we’ve no doubt that they’re doing just that – the future of the Ultrabook will be secure. Apple will be nervously glancing over its shoulder.

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