Mo-Fr: 8am-8pm
Sat: 10am-7pm
Sun: 11am-4pm

Ultraportable Laptop Buying Guide: What You Need to Know to Make the Most of Your Money

at 2011.09.19
Ultraportables are the latest big thing in laptop computers, and it’s obvious why: all the power and performance of a standard laptop, in an incredibly (one might almost say ultra-) portable and lightweight package. Ultraportables are the summit of what a laptop was envisioned as being. So now that you’ve decided to invest in the future, what exactly do you look for when buying an ultraportable laptop? The short answer is the same things you would look for in a regular desktop PC. The long answer? Read on:

The Ultraportable Laptop Buying Guide –

Processor:

Over the last year or so, Intels Sandy Bridge processor has taken over as the king of ultraportable processor market. The only real competition is ARM-based chips, but those tend to be optimized for mobile devices, and sport less processing power for insignificant improvements in energy consumption. The only real choice here is whether you want a Core i3, Core i5, or Core i7

  • Best: Core i7 when they become available in ultraportables, Core i5
  • Thrifty: Core i3 will be more than good enough for most people

RAM:

The more the better, and this is one of those categories where too much is never enough. While some laptops and ultraportables now come with as much as 32 Gigabytes of RAM, most people will not need more than 4.

  • Best: 32 Gigabytes, or more if you can fit it.
  • Thrifty: 4Gigs. Anything less and you will see a noticeable performance drop with newer applications.

Video Card:

Most ultraportables don’t come with a separate graphics card. Not only are they already cramped internally, the power requirements that a 3D graphics card has would completely drain the battery long before the standard 6-8 hours. If you went with a Sandy Bridge processor, you already have a graphics card on-board that is powerful enough for anything short of high-end 3D rendering. Which you shouldn’t be doing on an ultraportable anyway.

  • Best: Any video card.
  • Thrifty: On-board graphics card.

Ports:

Most ultraportables have at least 2 USB ports, and usually a video adapter for plugging in an external monitor. For most people, this should be more than enough, however if you regularly use multiple USB peripherals, or a power-hungry external that requires two USB ports to work, you definitely need to be aware of it. Look at your computer use now, and think about the way you use your device, and make sure you get enough ports to cover your bases.

  • Best: As many as you need.
  • Thrifty: USB ports generally don’t cost extra, so get as many as you think you’ll use.

Storage:

Most ultraportables will come with at least 250GB of internal storage if using a standard hard drive. This should be more than enough for just about anyone, unless you carry your entire collection of blue-ray movies stored on your laptop. Where things get interesting is solid state drives, or SSD hard drives. The advantages of SSDs are numerous: lower power consumption, faster access, and smaller size. The biggest ones currently available are about 512GB. Plenty of room, but the costs are significantly higher, with the 512GB SSDs costing more than what a 1 tera-byte external hard drive would run you.

  • Best: 256GB internal SSD if you can find it.
  • Thrifty: 128GB internal SSD and a 1TB external

The only variables left really are battery life and screen size. Battery life is fairly consistent across the board, with most ultraportables getting somewhere between 6 and 8 hours under normal use. Screen size is largely a matter of preference. One of the big advantages of ultraportables over netbooks and the like is that to fit in the ultraportable category, the laptop has to feature a full laptop keyboard, at almost standard size. This means that no matter what size you get, the experience will be largely the same except for the size of the screen. Also keep in mind that in order to save on powerSo what do we recommend? Good question. Here are a couple to consider, and if you can think of some better ones, let us know in the comments.

Windows Mac Thrifty
Model

Sony VAIO Z-series

13” MacBook Air

Dell Inspiron 14Z

Dimensions 13”W x 0.66”H x 8.27”D / 2.5 lbs 12.8”W x 0.68”H** x 8.94”D / 2.96 lbs 13.6”W x 1”H x 9.7”D / 5.0lbs
Processor* Intel® Core™ i5-2410M processor (2.30GHz / 2.90GHz with Turbo Boost) 1.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 with 3MB shared L3 cache 2nd generation Intel®Core™ processor i3-2330M (2.2GHz) with Intel HD Graphic 3000
RAM* 4GB (2GB x2 fixed onboard) DDR3-SDRAM-1333 4GB of 1333MHz DDR3 onboard memory 6GB Dual Channel DDR3
Video Card* AMD Radeon™ HD 6650M (1GB) graphics in Power Media Dock,Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor without Dock Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor with 384MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with main memory Intel HD onboard graphics
Storage* 128GB (64GB x2) solid state drive with RAID 0 128GB flash (SSD) storage 640GB 5400 RPM SATA Hard Drive
Screen Size/Resolution* 13.1″ LED backlit display (1600 x 900) 13.3-inch LED backlit / 1440 by 900 14 inch High Definition LED Display (1366 x 768) with True-Life
Battery Life*** 8 hours 7 hours No Data
Notes Comes with a nifty power-dock station complete with graphics card and multiple removeable media bays to turn your ultraportable into a legitimate desktop replacement. Mac, while not being the first to release an ultraportable, was the first to make it popular, and the first to switch all of their basic notebooks to the form. Still, they’ve lagged behind others in terms of price and performance It’s about twice as heavy as the rest pf the laptops listed here, but it makes up for it by being half as pricey. For a bare-bones, entry-level thin and light notebook, this is not a bad deal.
Price*/**** $1969.99 $1299 $799.99

*unless otherwise noted, all specs are for the base model.
**at it’s heighest point, 0.11” at the lowest
***estimate from manufacturer. Will vary greatly based on your use
****prices are subject to change, and can do so without warning. We’re not going to update these price after publishing so please don’t yell at us about it.