While much of the attention surrounding the long-awaited introduction of Windows 8 has focused on the latest tablets and convertibles, ultrabooks seem to have been lost in the frenzy. But although they aren't Transformers that can assume several computing personalities, ultrabooks tend to be lighter and less expensive -- and, for most business users, more useful.
"They may not be as flashy, but ultrabooks can provide more computing for the dollar than slates and convertibles can," says David Daoud, research director for personal computing at IDC. "They will likely be the value choice for businesses and consumers for the near future."
That's not to say this genre isn't changing with the times. There will probably be dozens of new ultrabook designs coming out in the next few months, including some with touch screens.
I was able to spend two weeks working, playing and living with three of the latest Windows 8 ultrabooks: The HP Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4t-1100, Sony's Vaio T13 and Toshiba's Portege Z935-P390.
All three have traditional clamshell designs with a full keyboard, hinged screen and touchpad. All use Intel's HD graphics to create 1366-x-768-resolution images on their screens. However, while the HP Envy and the Sony Vaio T13 have touch screens that measure 14 in. and 13.3 in. respectively, the Portege Z935 has a non-touch 13.3-in. screen.
I put these next-gen ultrabooks through their paces with benchmark testing, hour-by-hour use and a few road trips to see how they compare.
How we tested
To see how these first-generation Windows 8 ultrabooks compare with each other, I used them at my office and on the road for two weeks. After measuring the thickness of each system with a digital caliper, I measured their lengths and widths. Then I weighed each on a digital scale with and without its AC adapter.
I spent some time getting to know each system, examining every major aspect. I connected to both private and public Wi-Fi networks and also tried them out with a mobile hotspot.
For those systems that have a touch screen, I used a finger to maneuver around the Windows 8 Start Screen and also tried them with a Wacom Bamboo stylus. To gauge if it could work with 10 individual inputs I opened Paint and drew all 10 of my fingers across the screen.
Because Windows 8 is a new operating system, I checked each system's compatibility with a variety of peripherals likely to be around the typical home or office.
Next, I tested the WiDi capabilities of each system by establishing a connection between the computer and a Belkin ScreenCast receiver that was connected to an Epson MG-50 projector. I then walked away from the projector with the notebook in my hand to measure its range. When the picture or audio started to break up I took a step back towards the projector to reconnect and marked the spot.
Then, I tested the performance of each system. First I looked at overall performance with PassMark's PerformanceTest 8.0 benchmark test. The software exercises every major component of the system, including processor, hard drive, 2D and 3D graphics, and memory operations. It adds several game routines as well as a visualization of a Mandelbroit fractal set. I ran the software three times and averaged the results.
I also ran the Maxon CineBench benchmarks for graphics and processor performance. The software renders several photorealistic scenes that stress the processor and graphics chip by manipulating up to a million polygons. It reports scores for processor and graphics performance, and I averaged the results of three runs.
To gauge how long each can run on its battery, I loaded PassMark's BatteryMon, fully charged the system, set its power-management options to Balanced and adjusted the settings to prevent the computer from going to sleep. The screen brightness and volume were set to 6/10, and I used the shuffle feature on Windows Media Player to continuously play six videos from a USB flash drive connected to the system. I reported the average of three runs.
The HP Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4t-1100 may be a mouthful to say, but it is a well-designed touch-screen Windows 8 system.
The HP Envy is thicker than the Portege Z935 or Vaio T13 (while the company's specs give it as 0.78 in., I measured it at a full 1.0 in.). Its 13.3-x-9.2-in. footprint is nearly an inch wider than the Vaio T13 or Portege Z935. However, it provides the luxury of a 14-in. screen vs. the 13.3-in. displays on the other two.
At 4.6 lb., the Envy 4 is nearly double the weight of the 2.4-lb. Portege Z935 and 1.1 lb. heavier than the Vaio T13. When you add the three-prong AC adapter, the Envy 4 has a travel weight of 5.1 pounds. That being said, I really liked the Envy's rounded corners, soft rubberized coating on the bottom and brushed aluminum cover and deck.
The center of attention is its 14-in. 1366 x 768 touch screen that, like the Vaio T13, responds to ten-finger input. I was impressed with how bright and rich images were, and found that it greatly enhanced the process of working with Windows 8. However, I also found I had to be a bit careful -- all it took was a hard tap at the top of the screen to make the display wobble and risk tipping it over.
For typists, the Envy has a comfortable keyboard that is backlit with white LEDs.
The test system came with an Intel Core i5 3317U processor (as did the Portege Z935) that runs at 1.7GHz and can overclock to 2.6GHz; that was accompanied by the Intel HD Graphics 4000 processor. The unit came with 4GB of RAM; the system is upgradeable to a 16GB maximum.
While the Vaio T13 and Portege Z935 use SSDs for storage, the Envy has a more traditional 500GB hard drive with 32GB of hard drive cache to boost performance. The computer includes two USB 3.0 and one USB 2.0 connection along with an HDMI port, audio jacks and an SD card reader; however, the system lacks a VGA port for use with older monitors.