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Thirteen-inch lightweight laptop shootout (photos)

Apple's 13-inch MacBook takes on the competition: Samsung's Series 9 and Toshiba's Portege R835.

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Dan Ackerman
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
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Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Dan Ackerman
Scott Stein
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1 of 8 Matt Fitzgerald/CNET

Design

Dan: Samsung's Series 9 looks great, but it feels surprisingly cheap in the hand. The Air feels like it'll stop a bullet, although that's one test we haven't started doing yet. Compared with the other two, the Toshiba doesn't compete, but if you factor in the price, it's a looker.

Scott: The thinner designs of the MacBook Air and Samsung Series 9 grab my eye; to me, the Portege looks like a clunker by comparison. Hard to beat the Air, really. That blade of metal is more elegant than the curvy Series 9, which feels like what it is: a design knockoff of Apple's laptop.

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2 of 8 Matt Fitzgerald/CNET

Size/weight

Dan: Because it's thicker but only a touch heavier, the Portege feels less dense than the two slimmer laptops. All are pretty easy to tote around in a small laptop bag, but the Air and Series 9 are both impressive feats of engineering.

Scott: The Air and the Series 9 are both less than around 3 pounds. The Portege's not as light (3.2 pounds), and it's also thicker. The MacBook Air is the thinnest laptop, even if the Series 9 comes awfully close. An Air and a Series 9 held together feel like the size and weight of a normal notebook.

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3 of 8 Matt Fitzgerald/CNET

Display

Dan: The MacBook Air wins, as it's the only one of these three that offers a higher-than-average screen resolution, at 1,440x900 pixels--even the 13-inch MacBook Pro doesn't have that. The Portege, on the other hand, doesn't have great off-axis viewing.

Scott: That superbright 13-inch screen on the Series 9 has great viewing angles, almost as good as the iPad's; it beats the MacBook Air's higher-res, less poppy display. The Portege's screen is pretty good, too, but nothing notable.

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4 of 8 Matt Fitzgerald/CNET

Keyboard

Dan: A three-way photo finish. All three of these systems have excellent keyboards, but they're all of the same flat-topped, widely spaced style. If you want something different, you're out of luck. But serious props to the Series 9 for the backlit keyboard, which isn't nearly as common as it should be.

Scott: I love raised keyboards, and all three of these laptops have them. The Air and the Series 9 are incredibly similar; the edge goes to the backlit Series 9. The Portege's larger keys might be more comfortable, but we'll take that Series 9's backlight.

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5 of 8 Matt Fitzgerald/CNET

Touch pad

Dan: For whatever reason, no one can come close to the responsiveness and gesture controls of the big MacBook clickpads, with four-finger commands, inertial scrolling, etc.

Scott: Larger is better with multitouch pads; the Portege's still-large touch pad feels like a postage stamp compared with the epic space on the MacBook Air's clickpad. The Series 9's large pad comes close, but it's slightly smaller and less responsive.

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6 of 8 Matt Fitzgerald/CNET

Ports and connections

Dan: The second-generation MacBook Air certainly beats the original's single USB port, by adding a second one and an SD card slot. The Series 9 does a little better, but all that thinness comes with a price in terms of layout and selection of ports. The Portege is the most standard. It's always a good idea to seriously sit down and think about what you'll want to plug in--people often need more USB ports than they think they will.

Scott: The Portege has the normal laptop features, because it's a normal-size laptop...comparatively. Between the thinner laptops, the Series 9 has the Air beat on ports, but they're small and tucked away behind flip-down doors, which gets annoying. Convenience: the Air. Choice: the Series 9. A normal laptop experience: the Portege.

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7 of 8 Matt Fitzgerald/CNET

Battery

Dan: That mix of Intel's new Core-i CPUs, Toshiba's normally good power management, and a bigger body that allows for a bigger battery all comes together to give the Portege a pretty amazing battery life. The Samsung is helped by its low-voltage processor, but in a slim shell, there's not much room for a battery.

Scott: The Portege takes the crown with more than 7 hours. The Series 9 comes in second with 5 hours and 22 minutes, which is not bad at all for a thin laptop--but for run time, go with Toshiba.

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8 of 8 Matt Fitzgerald/CNET

Value

Dan: We thought last year's $800 to $900 Portege R705 was a great overall value for a full-featured 13-inch laptop, and looked like a more expensive machine. The R835 is faster, with much better battery life, and keeps the price around $900. The Air and Series 9 are priced based on design, not specs or performance, but they sure are fun.

Scott: Clearly, the under-$1,000 Portege is the winner here--but you'll be going with a porkier laptop. The Air and the Series 9 make you pay for their ultrathin designs. At $1,649, the Series 9 makes the Air look cheap by comparison.

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