Ultrabook face off: Toshiba Portégé Z830 vs Acer Aspire S3 3951 vs Asus Zenbook UX31 vs Lenovo IdeaPad U300s vs Macbook Air

Technology has been on a diet from day one. The slimmer, the better. Why the need for this permanent state of weight loss? It's rather simple really; thin stuff looks cool.

The latest piece of gadgetry to undergo the slimfast treatment has been the laptop. Helped along by things like the SSD and increasingly compact screen technology, you can now get a proper computing experience out of something thinner than a copy of The Dandy.

These new super slim laptops have been christened Ultrabooks by Intel. Anything packing an SSD, fast sleep/wake time, integrated graphics, low voltage processors and a greater than five hour battery life gets to carry the title. It also has to be less than 1.4 Kg and thinner than 20mm. You may have noticed we have put the MacBook Air into this battle. There is a rather simple reason for this; its specs virtually match every other Ultrabook on the market, it just isn't called one. 

With more and more Ultrabooks hitting the shops, choosing the best is getting difficult. Thankfully us peeps at Pocket-lint have put together this handy versus for you as part of Style Week. Like two stick insects battling it out, this is a super slim fight, this is the Ultrabook royal rumble.

Looks

1st: MacBook Air
Brushed aluminium has never looked so good
2nd: Acer Aspire S3
It’s basically a MacBook Air
3rd: Asus UX31
Concentric circles look great
4th: Lenovo IdeaPad 
Matte is always good, just not everywhere
5th: Toshiba Portege 
Too square

To be honest, every laptop in this category looks better than everything devoid of the Ultrabook moniker. Plenty of aluminium and black keyboards being thrown around here. The problem is that, ultimately, Apple started it and they know how to do it best. No one really comes close to the simplicity and style of the current gen MacBook Air.

The rest, however, do put up a pretty good fight. The Aspire is practically the same bar the black keyboard. The Asus sports concentric circles in its housing, which look particularly swish under desk lights. Lenovo at least had a go but the problem is they got a bit over excited and ended up creating something that looks more like a large black plastic slab, and a brown one at that.

Toshiba, though, appeared to be living in a world where rounded edges didn’t exist when they created the Z830. Victory here for Apple on the looks front, but then did that come as any surprise? The company has been making the best looking computers for quite some time now.

Size

1st: Lenovo IdeaPad 
324 x 215 x 14.9mm
2nd: Toshiba Portege 
316 x 227 x 16 mm
3rd: MacBook Air
325 x 227 x 17mm
4th: Acer Aspire S3
323 x 218.5 x 17.5mm
5th: Asus UX31
325 x 223 x 18 mm

Size is what makes an Ultrabook so exciting and what's really important when it comes down to it is just how thin each one is. At release, the MacBook Air set the standard that everyone was desperate to beat. At the thick end, it sits at 17mm, which is still incredibly slim. This has now been bested by Lenovo and Toshiba’s offerings. Lenovo in particular manages an amazing 14.9mm which is approaching tablet levels of thickness.

You'd be pleased to have any of this lot in your hands but for sheer dimensions, that IdeaPad is seriously impressive. The Toshiba isn't that far off and the other three are comparatively the "fatties" of the bunch.

Battery

1st= Lenovo IdeaPad 
Up to 8 hours
1st= Toshiba Portege 
Up to 8 hours
3rd= Asus Ux31
7 hours
3rd= macbook air
Up to 7 hours
5th: Acer Aspire S3
5 hours

Battery life is crucial to the Ultrabook. Its portability means you will likely be spending a lot of time in between charges. So, you're going to want the best possible power management and battery life. The specs that companies list tend to be only achievable if you were particularly well behaved in terms of what you put the laptop through. Play a lot of games for example, or browse the web on full brightness watching Flash videos, and you can expect to get your full quota.

Still, Lenovo and Toshiba have managed to glean an extra hour to boast about over the majority of the competition. As such they grab 1st and 2nd here. Not far off are the MacBook Air and Asus UX31 and it's really only the Acer which you'd have to be a touch annoyed about with about a third less battery life than all the rest.

Power

1st= Lenovo IdeaPad 
Intel i7 2677m, 4GB RAM
1st= MacBook Air
Intel i7, 4GB
1st= Asus UX31
Intel i7 2677m , 4GB RAM
1st= Acer Aspire S3
Intel i7, 4GB
5th: Toshiba Portege 
i5 2577m, 4GB RAM

For this category we went with the maximum spec possible for each laptop. It's basically a tie across the board bar the Toshiba, which is slightly less powerful with an i5, but not by much. From our experience in the past, one might find that, with the combination of an SSD and the way that OS X manages power, the MacBook Air could feel a lot faster, but then not everyone wants to use Apple’s operating system and, ultimately, it might not be the case with respect to these other Windows machines.

Storage

1st= Lenovo IdeaPad 
256GB
1st= MacBook Air
256GB
1st= Asus UX31
256GB
4th: Toshiba Portege 
128GB
5th: Acer Aspire S3
500GB hybrid drive

A virtual tie all around again on the storage front. If you have loads of cash to play with, then the 256GB SSD is well worth it. It gives you just the right balance between storage and power. Forget about it being cheap though. The Acer is sitting at the bottom for one simple reason. It doesn’t have an SSD, rather a hybrid 5400 rpm hard drive. Sure you get 500GBs of space, but we thought Intel only classed notebooks as Ultrabooks when they had SSDs inside? There is an option to go for an SSD with the Acer but it bumps the price up to £1099.

The implications this could have on battery life, due to moving parts as well as boot speed, are difficult to ignore and evident as we can see in the battery section above. Still all that memory comes a lot cheaper than putting a full 256GB into of the others. So, ultimately its up to you but, for our money, if you're not going SSD with an Ultrabook, you might just be missing the point.

Audio

1st: Asus UX31
Bang & Olufsen ICEpower SonicMaster
2nd= Toshiba Portege 
2 built-in speakers, Dolby Adv. Audio 2
2nd= Acer Aspire S3
2 built-in speakers, Dolby Home Theatre v 4
4th= Lenovo IdeaPad 
Stereo speakers
5th= MacBook Air
Stereo speakers

Despite their size, a lot of these Ultrabooks can manage pretty decent audio quality. Having had some ears-on time with the Asus UX31, we have to say it stands out from the rest by a long way. The B&O tech embedded makes for crisp and clear room filling audio, amazing from something so tiny.

The Toshiba and Acer both have plenty of Dolby tech packed in to clean up audio and get their speakers sounding good, hence the 2nd and 3rd. Lenovo and Apple keep it simple with just a pair of stereo speakers. Both are surprisingly loud, just don’t expect things to sound quite as sweet as the rest of the competition.

Connectivity

1st: toshiba portege
USB 3.0, USB 2.0 x2, HDMI, VGA,
2nd: asus ux31 
USB 3.0, USB 2.0, microHDMI, miniVGA
3rd: Acer Aspire S3
USB 2.0 x2, HDMI, VGA
4th: Lenovo IdeaPad 
USB 3.0, USB 2.0, HDMI
5th: MacBook Air
USB 2.0 x2, Thunderbolt,

There is a surprising amount of connections to be found on the majority of these Ultrabooks with all of them featuring the standard headphones, external mics and USB card readers. What seems to have separated the sheep from the goats though, is when it comes down to the USBs, HDMIs and VGAs of this world. In particular the inclusion of USB 3.0 outputs in a lot of the models is nice to see.

The Toshiba takes the crown with all the bases covered plus even a USB 2.0 port to spare. Close behind, just one port down and everything seemingly micro, is the Asus. After that, it's the Acer which is short of a future thinking bit of USB 3.0 compatibility followed very closely indeed by the Lenovo that has no VGA option to fall back on.

Lastly, it's the MacBook Air that's actually relatively barren on the connections front. Apple does benefit from Thunderbolt and that will be great when there's a touch more compatibility for it. Otherwise, you're looking at adapters for the time being on the video front.

Weight

1st: Toshiba Portege 
1120g
2nd: Lenovo IdeaPad 
1315g
3rd: MacBook Air
1350g
4th: Acer Aspire S3
1400g
5th: Asus UX31
1406g

Weight is crucial with an Ultrabook. The lighter it is, the more portable - a must for those planning on replacing their usual hefty laptops with one. The Toshiba wins this round by quite a way, sizing in at just over a kg which is very, very light indeed. We then enter into the 1300g club, where the weight difference is so little you likely wouldn’t notice if you picked them all up at the same time. Bringing up the rear is the Acer and the Asus which are a touch heftier. 

All in all, the above chart should show you just how portable every Ultrabook is. If, however, you want to boast that you own the lightest, then the Toshiba is the one for you.

Price

1stt: Acer Aspire S3
£914
2nd: Asus UX31
£999
3rd: Toshiba Portege 
£1099
4th: Lenovo IdeaPad 
£1199
5th: MacBook Air
£1449

None of these Ultrabooks exactly come cheap, but then you are paying a premium for the size and power combination. The Acer and Asus manage to keep things below the £1000 mark, particularly impressive for the latter, which includes B&O speakers and an i7 processor.

The Toshiba is just a touch more but this is trumped by the Lenovo, which you are likely paying for build quality with. The MacBook Air is way out though, no surprise there. A fully specced 256GB with an i7 inside will cost you £250 more than the competition. Still you are getting the best looking of the bunch.

Verdict

1st: Lenovo IdeaPad
First Look

2nd: Asus UX31
Review

3rd= MacBook Air
Review

3rd= Toshiba Portege 
First Look

5th: Acer Aspire S3
First Look

We've tried a few different ways of scoring this one but in the end it comes down to any major issues which each laptop may have and any major plus point. We should also add that we've effectively ignored the 'Looks' round because it's so very subjective. We might prefer the styling of the MacBook Air but you may find more affinity with the utility chic of the Lenovo.

The easy part is telling you the reason Acer came out at the bottom. That hybrid drive is a real issue for one and it rather goes against the second rule of the Ultrabook Club which is not 'you do not talk about Ultrabook Club' but instead that it should have an SSD. Throw in the poor battery life and suddenly it drops to the back of the field.

The MacBook and the Toshiba both look pretty decent on paper. The Toshiba's issue is that you can't spec it up as high as the others. There's less storage and a less powerful chip at its heart but the fact that it's really thin, really light and has good audio technology inside. all the same, helps a lot. The MacBook is probably a better all-rounder but what drags it down from second place is probably that price tag.

Unlike the Apple, the Asus Zenbook UX31 is very reasonable, well specced and has great touches like the B&O sound. You could argue that it slips a touch on size and weight but, to be far, there's not a huge amount of difference in either of those categories.

And all of that leaves the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s as the ultra Ultrabook. It's razer thin, seriously light and with all the power and storage that you could be after. There's no mistakes at all in its design and the only slight issue might really be with the price and a missing VGA port. Frankly though, we can live with that.

Do take a look at our full reviews and first look reviews of the Ultrabooks for a better idea of which one might suit you the best.

You can read more from Style Week on our Style Week homepage

Ultra Responsive. Ultra Sleek. Ultrabook ™ - www.intel.co.uk/ultrabook

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