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How to buy the best Ultrabook for your needs

Thinner, lighter, longer lasting – Ultrabooks and ultraportable designs are the new normal for laptops. Over the last two years the once-staid laptop has shifted to become not only more mobile, but more versatile, with the addition of touch-capabilities and sensors once found only in smartphones. That sort of rapid evolution can make for a confusing experience when shopping for a new Ultrabook, and the tide of change isn't slowing anytime soon. This guide is here to give you the skinny on the new slim laptops, and help you find the Ultrabook that's right for you.

Intel has a trademark on the capitalised word Ultrabook, requiring manufacturers to meet certain standards for thinness, components, and capability to get the Ultrabook moniker, but it doesn't have a monopoly on the idea. The progenitors to the Ultrabook were thin and light ultraportables, like the Apple MacBook Air 13in, launched in 2008, and the Samsung Series 9. These super-thin laptops may have jump started Intel's Ultrabook initiative, but once the idea took hold, similar designs started popping up with cheaper components not found in Intel's Ultrabook specifications.

For example, the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Lite may not carry the Ultrabook moniker, but it offers a similar ultraportable design and sells for considerably less than even the cheapest Intel offerings. Apple's still in the game, too, with the Apple MacBook Air 13in (Mid 2013 model) which uses Intel processors, but opts for Apple's own software and storage solutions.

One size fits most

Your first decision when Ultrabook shopping conerns screen size, and your choices are skewed – the majority of Ultrabooks have 13.3in displays, though the category ranges from 11in to 15in. Touchscreens are now the rule, rather than the exception, and Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system is built for touch – while you can find a few Ultrabooks without touch capability, touchscreens are now standard.

Although 1,366 x 768 resolution is common on the least expensive systems, most have shifted to 1,920 x 1,080 resolution, which is becoming the new standard as premium offerings feature even higher resolution displays. New premium models have raised the bar further for display resolution, with a 2,560 x 1,440 display cropping up on the Toshiba KIRAbook, and a 3,200 x 1,800 display on the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus. In coming months, more models will be released boasting displays with 4K resolution.

Current Ultrabook offerings range from the moderately slim to the extremely thin. Intel's specifications limit 13in and under systems to a maximum thickness of 0.7in (18mm), while 14in and up systems can be as thick as 0.83in (21mm). But with the introduction of new convertible designs, the thickness beefs up to 0.9in (23mm), regardless of screen size. The less demanding dimensions allow for the extra thickness added by touch-screen digitisers and the mechanical bulk of new hinge and dock designs. Intel has laid out specific requirements on thickness, but only guidelines on weight; as a result, the weights of new systems range between just over 1kg through to 2kg or so.

Given their slim profile, there are very few Ultrabooks that use a discrete graphics card. The twin emphasis on productivity and battery life means that the processor's integrated graphics rule the roost – but not entirely. New ultraportables marketed to PC gaming enthusiasts are making the most of mobile graphics for gaming on the go, like the US-only Razer Blade laptop, and there are models like the Gigabyte U2442T which uses a GeForce GT 730M graphics solution (though it’s battery life is mediocre, we noted in our review).

The balance between light weight and sturdy construction is perhaps the toughest challenge for Ultrabook makers. Some take a page from Apple's book and carve their chassis from single pieces of aluminium with no plastic panels. Others combine an aluminium case with a carbon fibre base, or they use magnesium alloy.

If you can check out an Ultrabook before buying, try picking it up by one corner or grasping the screen by the top corners, as well as typing on it with the system in your lap. Try lifting the open laptop by its screen and see if a loose hinge causes the keyboard to flop down. Look for flex or wobble. You shouldn't expect an Ultrabook to feel as solid as a 3kg desktop replacement notebook, but you shouldn't settle for one that feels flimsy instead of firm.

Under the hood

The latest generation of Intel's Core processor line-up – codenamed Haswell – was designed with Ultrabooks in mind. The current crop of processors offer significantly improved energy efficiency, providing full-powered performance with dramatically improved battery life. With the new fourth-generation processors, Ultrabooks and their ilk offer true all-day battery life, stretching eight or nine hours or more. The new processors are also designed with support for touchscreens and the tablet sensors found in convertible designs.

More than its processor, though, what makes an Ultrabook special is its storage, which for most is a 128GB or 256GB solid-state drive (SSD) instead of a conventional spinning hard disk. Besides the increased reliability that comes with a no-moving-parts design, the advantages of silicon storage are fast boot times and even faster wake or resume times from sleep or hibernation, permitting an Ultrabook to pause for hours or days in the middle of a work session, then spring back into action in as little as two or three seconds. Intel calls this speedy solution Rapid Start Technology.

Economy models have something else to offer, however, with hybrid drives that pair a traditional hard disk with a solid-state or flash memory cache. This pairing allows a measure of the performance and speedy start times seen with pure SSDs – with commonly used applications cached – but adds the larger capacity that a hard disk affords. However, due to the moving parts of a spinning drive, these hybrid drives are only suited to less-mobile clamshell designs rather than tablets, which will be moved and jostled during regular use.

Making connections

Some Ultrabooks have plenty of input/output ports; others have just a few. Almost all have USB 2.0 and faster USB 3.0 ports – the latter identified by a blue connector or the letters SS for Super Speed – for external drives, printers, and other peripherals. Some have USB ports that can recharge smartphones or other handheld devices. Headphone/microphone jacks and HDMI ports for plugging in an external monitor or TV are common, too.

Older, but handy, connections like VGA ports for hooking up older monitors or projectors, and Ethernet ports for joining a wired office network, have all but disappeared in the battle for thinner chassis designs. Some HDMI, VGA or Ethernet ports use miniature connectors that require dongles or adapters (the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus requires adapter dongles for both VGA and Ethernet). A Secure Digital (SD) or other flash card slot for transferring files or importing pictures from a digital camera is a plus. One or two Ultrabooks boast Thunderbolt ports boasting data transfer even faster than USB 3.0 for a small but growing list of Thunderbolt peripherals.

802.11n (and now 802.11ac) Wi-Fi is standard on every Ultrabook, and many pair it with Bluetooth. Connectivity with 4G or other mobile broadband so far seems limited to aftermarket add-ons and USB modems rather than being offered as a built-in option, but Intel's latest wireless innovation is a popular feature: Wireless Display or WiDi lets you beam the laptop's screen and audio to a living room or conference room HDTV set equipped with a third-party (Belkin or Netgear) adapter.

Keyboards, mice, and touchpads

Despite the similarity to thicker laptops, the thin confines of an Ultrabook don't provide much room for manufacturers to work with, specifically limiting the room available for key travel and the underlying key switches. That makes keyboard comfort a paramount concern, and the good news is that the Ultrabook’s virtually full-sized keyboards banish memories of cramped netbook layouts. The bad news is that Ultrabooks are so thin that some keyboards are shallow or short on travel or typing feel, though still superior to typing on a tablet LCD (by a long way).

If you can't sample a keyboard's feel before buying, at least try to check out its layout, and whether, for instance, it has dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys, or doubles those functions up on the cursor arrows. Ultrabooks with backlit keyboards, such as the HP Folio 13, are great for typing in dim rooms or on red-eye flights. Touchpads, too, are an important matter of personal preference, although dedicated mouse buttons seem to be vanishing in favour of Apple-style one-piece designs with clickable lower left and right corners. Another Apple feature that's been adopted by other manufacturers for the sake of slimness is a sealed or internal battery pack that can't be swapped out for a spare as larger laptop batteries can.

Tablets and hybrids

Even as the first Ultrabooks were hitting store shelves, Intel was planning for the new category to encompass more than just slim laptops. "Eventually," a September 2011 Intel blog post promised, "you'll think of an Ultrabook as a tablet when you want it, a PC when you need it." And indeed manufacturers have unveiled hybrid designs that make good on this promise, merging the familiar laptop form factor with the hands-on design of a tablet.

Convertible designs, like the folding Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro, or the spinning, flipping Dell XPS 12, transform easily from laptop to tablet, and back again. Other designs put all of the PC hardware into the display, which disconnects from the keyboard (or in some cases a docking station with keyboard) to serve as a standalone tablet. These detachable designs use special docking connectors and keyboards to offer both the freedom of a tablet, and the productive capability of a laptop with keyboard and mouse. For those shopping for a new PC, it is important to get some hands-on time with any hybrid system you intend to buy, as the new mechanics of the hybrid design introduce all sorts of new concerns for consumers to be aware of – such as potentially delicate hinge designs, different weight distribution, and clunky dock connections.

Touchscreen and stylus

The new emphasis on touch also means that keyboards and mice are joined by touch as primary inputs for the newest Ultrabooks. With capacitive touch displays from the likes of N-trig and Wacom, the laptop screen is now meant to be touched. Even among Ultrabooks with no tablet functionality, touchscreens have become the norm, with models retaining all of the familiar design elements of a clamshell laptop, with no funky hinges or awkward docks, but they still let you reach out and touch the screen for a slightly more hands-on computing experience.

Shoppers should remember to try out the touch capability, and be on the lookout for sensitivity issues, designs that may be uncomfortable to hold, and models that feature stylus input for drawing and handwriting recognition. Also, when looking at those hybrid Ultrabooks that come with a stylus, consider the fact that not all of them provide a place to store it, so be sure to ask first, and have a plan for keeping track of the thing if they don’t.

Whether you're looking for a laptop that gives you real portability and all-day use, a slim system that lets you take gaming on the road, or a convertible that doubles as a tablet, the latest crop of Ultrabooks has something for just about everyone. Once you've figured out what features you want in your next ultraportable purchase, be sure to keep abreast of our Ultrabook reviews for further advice.