When Intel coined the term "Ultrabook" to describe a new breed of notebook -- thin, light, power-efficient, all courtesy of new chip set technology -- it was easy to dismiss as little more than a clever marketing ploy. But the units themselves, from a broad range of manufacturers, have turned heads and created a niche for themselves in the PC market.
Credit Windows 8 too for its part in spurring a general rethink of the laptop among hardware makers. By attaching a touch-driven tablet UI to the traditional Windows desktop, Windows 8 (like it or not) has given birth to a wide variety of tablet-laptop convertibles and hybrids. The result is more choice than ever for the Windows stalwart. As always, some options are better than others. Let this brief recap of InfoWorld's Windows 8 hardware reviews (so far) be your guide.
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The new form factorsWindows 8 notebooks come in roughly three basic designs: the classic clamshell (the Lenovo X1 Carbon, the Acer Aspire S7), the convertible (Dell XPS 12, Lenovo ThinkPad Twist), and the dockable or detachable (HP Envy X2, Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro 700T). The clamshell of course appeals mainly to those who are comfortable with a conventional notebook design and don't have much use for a tabletlike experience.
The second form factor, the convertible, is a halfway house for users who want a tablet design and don't mind lugging the extra weight of a keyboard -- or for those who fear that a detachable keyboard may become a liability (for example, if it's left on the train).
But the third form factor presents the strongest possible contender for the market currently dominated by tablets. Some dockables get battery life comparable to a tablet (even more if the keyboard dock doubles as another battery, as with the HP Envy and Acer Iconia W510), and provide the advantage of being full-blown Windows machines.
However, note that the dockable's battery life typically comes at the price of compromised performance. That's because most dockables are built around Intel's low-power Atom SoC (system on a chip). The Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro 700T, which sports an Intel Core CPU, is the rare dockable that also qualifies as an Ultrabook.
Note too that dockables can suffer from an inconsistency of design and build quality that doesn't seem to plague the other form factors as often. For example, the dock of the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro 700T is remarkably shaky, whereas the dock of the HP Envy X2 (the class of the Atom-based dockables) was as solid as the rest of the unit.
To touch or not to touch?If there's one feature Windows notebooks sport regularly these days, it's a touchscreen. The reasons for this are obvious, but also circular: Ultrabooks are at least partly in competition with tablets, so touch is all but mandatory.
There are Ultrabooks that ship without touch, though not many -- the Lenovo X1 Carbon and the Dell Latitude 6430u, to name two. Why? Target markets: such machines are mainly designed as business workhorses, and touch on notebooks isn't automatically a must in many business environments. Touchpads and nub mice generally work fine for such audiences. That said, note that Windows 8 has an edge over Windows 7 in terms of battery life.
Consequently, such machines ship with the option of either Windows 7 or Windows 8. While Windows 8 without touch is problematic, some manufacturers have partly made up for it by including gesture-powered touchpad software. The HP EliteBook Folio 9470m, for instance, has a touchpad that lets you navigate Windows 8 using the same gestures you would apply on-screen. Unlike gesture-enabled touchpads on other Ultrabooks, HP's is programmed with care to avoid having accidental gestures trigger its Windows 8-specific functions.
InfoWorld's top picksWhether you're in the market for a classic Ultrabook or a device that straddles both notebook and tablet territory, you have some good options. Many of today's Ultrabook clamshells have done a fine job of accommodating Windows 8, or at least meeting it halfway. Of the dozen or so Ultrabooks reviewed by InfoWorld, we'd be happy to call most of them our own. But one stood head, if not also shoulders, above the rest.
Of course, the major innovation has taken place in convertibles and dockables, and this is where some remarkable systems can be found. If you long for tablet functionality and are willing to give up top-flight performance, you can also save some money. A good convertible or dockable can cost $600 and up, whereas the snazziest Ultrabooks reach into the $2,000-plus stratosphere.
Here's our rundown of the best Windows 8 Ultrabooks, convertibles, and dockables on the market, based on our reviews.
The HP Envy is aptly named. One glance and you'll be coveting it. Its brushed-aluminum exterior and elegant curves make it one of the sleekest -- and slickest -- tablet-laptops now on the market. Plus, the metal isn't just for show. It makes the Envy feel solidly built for both travel and long life. Despite that, it's only 1.5 pounds undocked, 3.1 pounds docked. No fans or vents are present, since the onboard Atom processor produces little heat.
The main advantage of the keyboard dock, aside from typing, is the second battery, which together with the Envy X2's own battery gave us more than 11 hours of use in our Netflix rundown test. Full-sized USB and HDMI ports, audio, and a full-size SD card slot are also in the dock, and the same charging port is available on both dock and unit. Our only gripes about the dock are the lack of backlighting for the keys and a hair-trigger touchpad.
Although the Envy's feature set and preloaded software aim it squarely at consumers, there's little reason it can't be used in a small-office fleet as well if performance isn't paramount.
InfoWorld score: 8.2 (Very Good); read the full review.
See also: The HP ElitePad 900, the Envy's very business-centric counterpart, is best as part of a fleet thanks to its service, management, and expansion-jacket features.
Runner-up: Dell Latitude 10This business-oriented tablet is both ruggedly built and lightweight (1.43 pounds): magnesium-alloy construction, Gorilla Glass face, and the same soft-touch cladding as Lenovo's ThinkPad line of notebooks. In a further bid for corporate use, it comes with an optional docking station to make it work as a substitute low-end desktop.
"Low end" is the key term: The Latitude 10 is Atom-powered, with a maximum of only 128GB of internal storage. Plus, the small display (10.1 inches) and the fact that the dock only allows a limited range of viewing angles all mean you'll want to attach an external display to that dock to avoid eyestrain when you're using it in sit-down mode.
Various SKUs for the unit appeal to different classes of users. One features a double-life battery, another has WWAN through a variety of carriers, and a third sports a smart-card and fingerprint reader. That also means the low starting price can be deceptive. By the time you've finished adding all the extras (the docking station itself is $100), you might be in the same price range as better-performing hybrids.
InfoWorld score: 7.9 (Good); read the full review.
Other dockables worth a look: Acer Iconia W510. It lacks the build quality of the HP Envy and Dell Latitude 10, but battery life (15 hours 30 minutes) beat all comers in our Netflix test.
InfoWorld score: 7.8 (Very Good); read the full review.
This is one of the cleverest Ultrabooks on the market right now, bar none. This laptop-cum-tablet is sleek, sturdy, highly usable -- and on the pricey side.
Most convertibles detach the keyboard from the display. Instead, the Dell XPS 12's display flips around inside a metal frame to covert the machine from tablet mode to notebook mode, with magnetic clasps to guide the display into place. On the downside, this mechanism means you can't leave the keyboard behind and shed a little weight if you want to, and you need to be careful to not pinch your fingers when you switch the display around.
The swipe gestures on the touchpad had a bit of a hair trigger, and as with many other Ultrabooks on the market, there's no drive-activity light. But the keyboard's comfortable, there's little bloatware shoveled into the system, and an optional dock provides a whole slew of expansion and connectivity.
InfoWorld score: 8.2 (Very Good); read the full review.
Runner-up: Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro 700TSamsung's Ultrabooks have garnered a reputation for being polished, stylish, and powerful. The Ativ Smart PC Pro is powerful and has some very smart design touches, but a few bits of its construction hint at how Samsung needs to work on delivering a more budget-priced system.
This rare dockable Ultrabook has horsepower enough for most business-class users, and the unit itself is well-built. But the plastic keyboard dock feels flimsy and cobbled together, and the power connector for both dock and keyboard is so tiny and fragile it's easy to imagine breaking it if you tug the wrong way. Additionally, the keyboard isn't backlit, there's no auxiliary battery in the dock, and the finicky spacebar may be annoying to type on.
But the unit has some smart design touches, like having the heat vent at the top (no more baked laps), and the battery with the unit delivered more than five hours of runtime in our tests. Existing Samsung fans will appreciate the presence of a stylus as well as the S-branded line of software also found in their Samsung Galaxy line of Android phones.
InfoWorld score: 8.0 (Very Good); read the full review.
Packing an Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of SDRAM, and an 180GB SSD, the HP EliteBook Folio 9470M is a sleek, solid, smartly designed business-class machine. There's nothing rickety about its brushed-aluminum case or the cover hinge, the backlit and recessed keyboard is comfortable, and as mentioned above, the touchpad serves as a usable substitute for a touchscreen. A smart card slot, TPM, and fingerprint reader are all standard.
InfoWorld scorecard: 8.9 (Very Good); read the full review.
Runner-up: Dell Latitude 6430uLike HP's Folio 9470M, the Dell Latitude 6430u is at the high end of the size and weight class for an Ultrabook, but lighter and svelter than many other business-class notebooks. It also gets excellent battery life -- nearly five hours in our Netflix rundown test. Nice touches include a spacious, full-motion, and spill-resistant keyboard and a gesture-supporting touchpad that's not too eager to trigger Windows 8 actions you don't intend. A self-encrypting SSD and TPM are standard. It's not the flashiest Ultrabook on the market, but a great choice for anyone whose first priority is productivity.
InfoWorld score: 8.6 (Very Good); read the full review.
Other Ultrabook clamshells worth a look: Lenovo X1 Carbon (InfoWorld score: 8.4, Very Good; read the full review), Samsung Ativ Book 9 (InfoWorld score: 8.3, Very Good; read the full review), HP EliteBook 2170p (InfoWorld score: 8.2, Very Good; read the full review).
Finally, it won't be long before Ultrabooks based on Intel's new Haswell chipset will be widely available. Set to consume 50 percent less power than its predecessor, Ivy Bridge, Haswell promises all-day-and-then-some battery life without the performance sacrifice presented by Atom. The result should be super-slender and lightweight Windows notebooks with the speed of real PCs and the power consumption profiles of tablets. Stay tuned.
This article, "Top picks: The best Windows 8 tablet laptops, convertibles, and Ultrabooks," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in computer hardware and mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.
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