Having reviewed the first four ultrabook laptops to hit stores, and spent some hands-on time with a just-announced HP version, it's clear Apple's dominance of the superthin laptop category faces a serious challenge.
Acer, Asus, Toshiba, and Lenovo all have impressive systems, all under 18 millimeters thick, and all with second-generation Intel Core i-series processors and solid-state drives (SSDs). The key is that these 13-inch laptops start at $799, while the 13-inch MacBook Air starts at $1,299.
That said, stack all of these systems together on a table and we'll still pick the Air for general everyday use, as long as price is no object. To date, no one has matched the multitouch trackpad experience of the MacBook, along with its excellent keyboard, and simple sleep/hibernate quick-start states.
But, if you're looking for the best value based on system specs, the field is suddenly wide open.
Toshiba's Portege Z835 has a slower Core i3 processor (which is still fine for everyday use), but includes a full 128GB SSD for only $799 in a Best Buy retail-exclusive configuration. HP and Acer both have $899 ultrabooks--both with a Core i5 processor and either a 128GB SSD (HP) or 20GB/320GB hybrid drive (Acer).
The Asus Zenbook is the closest in look and feel to the Air, with a similar 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-2557M processor, a 128GB SSD, all-metal unibody construction, and a backlit keyboard, but it starts at only $1,099. Lenovo's IdeaPad U300s is a bit more, $1,199, but it has a particularly sharp design and the best keyboard of the bunch (although it's sadly not backlit).
The comparison is easier to make with the 11-inch version of the Asus Zenbook. For $999, you can get the 11-inch MacBook Air, with 2GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD (of which about 49GB is available to users after operating-system files); or you can get a nearly identical Zenbook UX21 with double the RAM, 4GB, and double the SSD capacity, 128GB.
What this says to us is that the MacBook Air, particularly the entry-level $999 11-inch version, is starting to look like it's in need of another update. Just as Apple recently updated the components in its MacBook Pro line of laptops, offering more power and space at the same prices, ditching that 64GB SSD in the least expensive Air would be an excellent first step.
Even if none of the current slate of ultrabooks is a true MacBook Air killer, many more are reportedly on the way at CES 2012. According to PC Pro magazine, Shawn DuBravac, director of research for the Consumer Electronics Association, told a London tech event, "We expect to see 30 to 50 new ultrabooks launched at CES."
In the meantime, here are the current and coming-soon ultrabooks, side by side with the MacBook Air.
Toshiba Portege Z835-P330
The Toshiba Portege Z835 is incredibly light and offers great bang for the buck in some areas--but it cuts a pretty serious corner by dropping the CPU to an Intel Core i3.
While it's not as thin as some of the other ultrabooks we've seen, the price is right, at $899, which gets you not only a 128GB SSD, but also an Intel Core i5 CPU.
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s
The less expensive of two available configurations matches up with the low-end MacBook Air, with a 128GB SSD and Intel Core i5 CPU, but the Lenovo is about $100 less, at $1,195 versus $1,299.
Acer Aspire S3
Slim, lightweight, and powerful, it certainly looks and feels a good deal like the other ultrabooks. The difference is that Acer has decided to sell the Aspire S3 for $899, a steep discount from what you'd pay for a 13-inch MacBook Air.
Asus Zenbook UX31E
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the MacBook Air should be positively blushing right around now; the Asus Zenbook doesn't shy away from an Apple-like design whatsoever.
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, Summer 2011)
The MacBook Air has finally gone mainstream, with excellent performance, good battery life, and a backlit keyboard. It's the clear template for ultrabooks.