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Hands on with the HP Folio 13

HP's first ultrabook is thicker and heavier than others we've seen, but it might also be better.

As ultrabooks become a major part of the laptop landscape this year, the key to finding a good one might not lie in specs--since so many have identical innards--so much as look, feel, and bang for the buck.

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In that regard, the HP Folio 13 might be a winner.

The HP Folio 13, which was announced last year, is a small business-targeted ultrabook that could be equally at home in the hands of a regular Joe User. After all, the "business" differentiation is merely cosmetic and arbitrary, unless you choose to upgrade to Windows 7 Professional an optional TPM chip. What the HP Folio 13 has--a Core i5 low-voltage CPU, 128GB SSD storage, 4GB of RAM--befits any laptop in the 13-inch ultrabook universe circa 2012.

It is a thicker laptop, and a heavier one, too, compared with the MacBook Air and any of last year's ultrabooks. Not by much, though; it's a little over 3 pounds, and still thinner than any "normal" laptop. It's just not wafer-thin. Consider the side benefits, though: the HP Folio 13 only costs $899, which undercuts a lot of the ultrabook competition by at least $100. And, in terms of both specs and features, there are few compromises. The Folio 13 comes with everything that most ultrabooks do, with none of the annoying compromises such as missing SD card slots or Ethernet jacks that were common to last year's ultrabook crop.

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The wide, raised backlit keyboard and expansive multitouch clickpad are excellent, and rise above the pack compared with shallower keyboards on other ultrabooks. This keyboard feels more generous in terms of its key space than even the MacBook Air and Lenovo IdeaPad U300s.

On the whole, the sense of deja vu I felt when using the HP Folio 13 is justified: it comes across as an evolved sibling of the HP dm4, a laptop I loved just a year or so ago. In fact, I'd say that, looks-wise, the whole laptop feels a little bit like an HP throwback.

Sarah Tew/CNET

That's not a bad thing necessarily; HP's designs of the past few years have largely been sound. It's not likely to grab the eye on a table at Starbucks--its brushed-aluminum back lid and palm rest and black keyboard will probably blend right in the jungle of laptops and venti lattes--but hey, those who don't want to treat their laptops like Ferraris might be relieved. To lovers of superslim laptops like the Samsung Series 9, the HP Folio 13 may seem thick and surly. To mainstream laptop owners, the HP Folio 13 will feel sleek, fast, and very portable. It's all a matter of perspective. In case I sound ambivalent, consider this statement: I'd consider carrying a laptop like the HP Folio 13 over the MacBook Air at CES 2012 next week. That's how comfortable I feel using it.

A slightly rubberized bottom gives the Folio 13 a soft yet firm grip on a table. That, combined with the smooth palm rests and comfy keyboard, make this an easy laptop to love working on. No, it doesn't feel like an ultrabook...but credit HP with the decision to stay with its own design philosophy and not bend over backward to make its own version of the MacBook Air.

Other than the keyboard, the other aspect I most appreciated was the Folio 13's ample selection of ports. It's all here: USB 3.0 (Ed Note: I said before it lacked USB 3.0, and was mistaken), USB 2.0, HDMI, an Ethernet jack (a rarity among ultrabooks), and an SD card slot. Bluetooth is also included--maybe not surprising in a $900 laptop, but it's a feature often inexplicably cut in many mainstream machines.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The rest of the Folio 13 is more pedestrian. The glossy, bright 13-inch display has a 1,366x768-pixel resolution and looks very good head-on. At side angles, the image deteriorates like the screen on the average mainstream laptop. For the price, it's more than adequate, although it's not a stunner.

There are no upgrades available on HP's Web site per se: you can have an HP Folio 13 you want, as long as it has an 128GB SSD, 4GB of RAM, and a 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-2467M CPU. There are no graphics options other than the included integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics, which are fine for most basic needs, photo editing, and even video editing and some gaming. Like all ultrabooks, the HP Folio 13 doesn't have a DVD drive. For $150 extra, you could always upgrade to Windows 7 Professional instead of the included Windows 7 Home Premium OS, but the average consumer won't need to.

Once full battery tests have been completed, we'll return to fully review the HP Folio 13. Right now, it's looking like an excellent consideration for anyone in the market for a no-nonsense, well-built, well-performing ultrabook, albeit one that lacks the fanciness of some of its competitors. Practicality, you win...this time.

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