MacBook Air vs. the ultrabook alternatives

The MacBook Air has existed without peer for some time — but with the launch of ultrabooks that mantle is finally being challenged. Does the first crop of thin Windows notebooks stack up?

Craig Simms Special to CNET News
Craig was sucked into the endless vortex of tech at an early age, only to be spat back out babbling things like "phase-locked-loop crystal oscillators!". Mostly this receives a pat on the head from the listener, followed closely by a question about what laptop they should buy.
Craig Simms
2 min read

Intel's big push for ultrabooks -- slim laptops that attempt not to sacrifice too much on performance -- on the surface looks like a very much delayed, reactive move to Apple's MacBook Air.

Are there contenders yet?
(Credit: Apple/CBS Interactive)

You could argue that it's a natural evolution of technology, though. Intel's been brewing towards such a goal for many years -- decent performance in a low power chip. As more and more moves off the chipset and onto the CPU, thermals can be managed more efficiently, and interconnects suffer less bandwidth issues. With the tag team of USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt coming into view, the need for multiple ports shrinks dramatically, too.

Of course, the Airs have had Intel chips in them from the beginning, making us wonder if Apple had a timed, exclusive deal with Intel that prevented Windows competitors getting on board in the same price range. Or maybe they were just too obsessed with netbooks to care.

Speculation aside, the Air competitors are now here, with contenders from Asus, Acer and Toshiba in the market. HP's Folio 13 is expected to arrive some time in December, but there's no word yet as to when Lenovo's U330s will hit our shores.

Enlarge Image

Want the info at a glance? Check out our infographic (786KB).
(Credit: Craig Simms/CNET Australia)

My, that's a large gap

While the new laptops are interesting, vendors have decided not to play -- for now. Speculation is that most are waiting for a technology revision, to bring down costs and improve the profit margin.

Sony hasn't announced anything, but Intel thinks it will. Fujitsu has no plans to jump in for this generation. Dell is staying oddly silent, but rumours persist. Samsung has thin laptops, but it's not bandying the phrase "ultrabook" anywhere and the price is still at a premium. MSI has thin laptops, but they're too heavy to get the ultrabook label.

The future is thin, while sacrificing minimal performance.
(Credit: Apple, Acer, Asus, Toshiba)

Should this be a warning sign? Do the current crop of ultrabooks hold a candle to the MacBook Air, or are they still playing catch up? Our competitors this time are the Asus ZenBook UX 21 and UX31, the Toshiba Satellite Z830 and the Acer Aspire S3.

A warning going in: this isn't the place for operating system holy wars. If you like Windows, great, stick with it. If OS X is your thing, by all means keep using it. If you've got an open mind though, carry on...

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Toshiba's entrant shows a scary amount of flex in its screen, and the laptop itself feels a little fragile, too, much like its Portege R series. Despite our concerns, it survived quite a few weeks of punishment being tossed in a bag and carried between home and work.

Despite Acer's Aspire S3 having a magnesium/aluminium frame, the chassis skin feels like it's plastic and flexes like it, too. To add insult to injury, the dull grey that Acer has chosen simply inspires boredom.

Winner: MacBook Air


Many have tried to copy Apple's touch pad on the Windows side, and for reasons that probably involve patents, have failed repeatedly. Its combination of gestures tightly integrated with the operating system make going back to a Windows pad feel clunky. A splaying of fingers shows the desktop, swiping two fingers scrolls, swiping four fingers up shows Mission Control (app and virtual desktop switching), tapping two fingers simultaneously acts as right-click -- there's a whole lot more, and it makes application management so much friendlier. Sickening promo music aside, the video below shows the depth of what one touch pad can do.

Only recently has multi-touch become reliable on Windows laptops, with older models getting confused between pinch to zoom and rotate functions. Synaptics and Elantech have mostly sorted the problem now, although what gestures you get will depend on what driver you use, rather than the hardware involved.

Out of all the ultrabooks, Acer's Elantech pad on the Aspire S3 is the best, offering the most configurability and smooth action. Asus' is by far the worst; almost bad enough by itself to recommend you stay away from the laptop. It's made by a manufacturer called Sentelic, whose hallmarks include awful drivers (if your laptop maker provides them -- Sentelic doesn't make them available on its site), skittish response and terribly unreliable multi-touch gestures.

On the keyboard side, only Toshiba and Apple offer backlit keyboards. All provide decent typing experiences except the Asus, where the keyboard is bad enough that it drops letters when typing. Toshiba's keyboard flexes slightly while typing but doesn't seem to impact on speed, while Acer's is your everyday, standard keyboard.

Winner: MacBook Air


Most laptops use TN screens, and there's no exception to the contenders here. This means comparatively poor viewing angles to competing technologies like IPS, but it's worth saying that there are varying qualities within the TN field itself.

Asus' UX21 has a bad TN screen. Its vertical viewing angles are so shallow that if you filled the screen with one colour, it would be a different colour at the top than the bottom. We found ourselves constantly adjusting the screen, trying to get the optimum angle, but never getting there.

The UX31 is a different kettle of fish. Maybe it's a size thing, but we found the optimal viewing angle easier to hit. It also has a fantastic resolution of 1600x900 -- the MacBook Air 13 trailing at 1440x900, and everything else using the ubiquitous and annoying 1366x768 resolution.

We say annoying because even today there are user interfaces that expect a larger vertical resolution than 768 pixels -- Adobe's save-to-web interface in Photoshop, for example, runs off screen, hiding the OK and cancel buttons. One could validly argue this is Adobe's problem, but it's a shame that resolutions have reduced rather than increased over the years.

Toshiba's screen has better viewing angles than most, but its colours are overly saturated, leading to a disconcerting colour shift. This will only be obvious to most consumers if they place two laptops side by side, and will unlikely annoy anyone but designers and those who use colour critical applications.

The Aspire S3 has an acceptable screen, while Apple uses a high-quality TN screen in both its 11- and 13-inch models. The Air also features an ambient light sensor that dynamically changes screen brightness depending on your surrounds -- a battery-saving feature missing from its competitors.

Winner: MacBook Air

iTunes encoding (in seconds)

Apple MacBook Air 13 (2011, Core i5 1.7GHz, 128GB SSD) 36Asus ZenBook UX21 (Core i7 @ 1.8GHz, 128GB SSD) 46Apple MacBook Air 11 (2011, Core i5 1.6GHz, 128GB SSD) 47Asus ZenBook UX31 (Core i7 @ 1.8GHZ, 256GB SSD) 47Toshiba Satellite Z830 (Core i5 @ 1.6GHz, 128GB SSD) 59Acer Aspire S3 (Core i5 @ 1.6GHz, 320GB HDD) 63
Note: (Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Photoshop CS5 benchmark (in seconds)

Asus ZenBook UX21 (Core i7 @ 1.8GHz, 128GB SSD) 287Asus ZenBook UX31 (Core i7 @ 1.8GHZ, 256GB SSD) 293Toshiba Satellite Z830 (Core i5 @ 1.6GHz, 128GB SSD) 330Acer Aspire S3 (Core i5 @ 1.6GHz, 320GB HDD) 341Apple MacBook Air 13 (2011, Core i5 1.7GHz, 128GB SSD) 352Apple MacBook Air 11 (2011, Core i5 1.6GHz, 128GB SSD) 372
Note: (Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)

Asus ZenBook UX31 (Core i7 @ 1.8GHZ, 256GB SSD) 577Asus ZenBook UX21 (Core i7 @ 1.8GHz, 128GB SSD) 615Apple MacBook Air 13 (2011, Core i5 1.7GHz, 128GB SSD) 657Toshiba Satellite Z830 (Core i5 @ 1.6GHz, 128GB SSD) 682Acer Aspire S3 (Core i5 @ 1.6GHz, 320GB HDD) 723Apple MacBook Air 11 (2011, Core i5 1.6GHz, 128GB SSD) 755
Note: (Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple has an interesting advantage in Handbrake, with the much faster Asus ZenBook UX31 managing to only just nestle between both of Cupertino's contenders. We can only assume OS X-level optimisations. Still, at performing the same task, the MacBook Airs are incredibly efficient.

The advantage carries to iTunes, which, as it's Apple software, should be no surprise. iTunes on Windows has always been a comparatively sluggish performer, with the Asus offerings only keeping pace by pure virtue of being faster. From an efficiency view, Apple still takes the cake.

Here's where it gets interesting -- it seems Windows machines have the advantage with Photoshop, especially under heavy load. Even the hard-drive-equipped Acer outperforms both MacBooks by a significant margin.

Despite the MacBooks having big advantages in both Handbrake and iTunes, when we start using them to encode simultaneously another picture emerges. Asus' higher specced hardware allows it to create quite the lead here.

Battery life (time)

  • Heavy battery test
  • Light battery test

  • Asus ZenBook UX31 (Core i7 @ 1.8GHZ, 256GB SSD)

  • Toshiba Satellite Z830 (Core i5 @ 1.6GHz, 128GB SSD)

  • Apple MacBook Air 13 (2011, Core i5 1.7GHz, 128GB SSD)

  • Asus ZenBook UX21 (Core i7 @ 1.8GHz, 128GB SSD)

  • Apple MacBook Air 11 (2011, Core i5 1.6GHz, 128GB SSD)

  • Acer Aspire S3 (Core i5 @ 1.6GHz, 320GB HDD)

(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Running a 720p H.264 video with the screen at full brightness is our heavy battery test, with everything on the list being capable of watching at least one movie before dying (Lord of the Rings Extended Editions excluded).

Our light battery test sets the screen at 40 per cent brightness, and browses websites until battery exhaustion. When taking both into account, you can get a good idea of how long a battery may last under a mix of conditions.

Acer aside, the 13-inch laptops have a clear advantage over the 11-inch competitors, purely down to being able to hold bigger batteries.

Winner: Asus ZenBook UX31